Worldbuild Minus Infodump Equals Fantasterrific!

On March 15, 2020, Myra S. wrote, How do you find ways to worldbuild without infodumping?

Several of you had ideas.

Erica: What I’ve done in my poor, neglected WIP is to get the plot started quickly, and then slow down a little. For example, once I got my MC suitably injured, I then described the evening he spent in the hospital. What actually happened wasn’t important to the plot, bur it gave me the opportunity to explain better what was going on.

future_famous_author: Also, if a character has to explain your world to another character, a character who has just been introduced to the country/realm/dimension/planet then you have a super easy excuse to easily plant new information into the story about the world that it is set in.

Melissa Mead: Here’s a handy resource: http://www.pcwrede.com/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/

Christie V Powell: I’ve enjoyed watching Brandon Sanderson’s lectures on the subject. He has two recent ones on worldbuilding, and covers this topic. Here’s the first one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ATNvOk5rIJA&list=PLSH_xM-KC3Zv-79sVZTTj-YA6IAqh8qeQ&index=5

Raina: I think two aspects of worldbuilding are what to share and when to share it. For the first, I like to think about a concept called Chekhov’s gun: basically, the idea is that if you introduce an element in the story, it should be used later on. The original concept applies to plot devices and props, but I think it’s a good way to think about worldbuilding. Beyond basic details about the world, if you introduce some information about the world, it should be relevant to and have some impact (even if not directly) on the story later on. In other words, the information should be used–whether to justify a character’s actions/personality, to have an effect on the plot, or just to explain why something happens the way it does–eventually.

For the second, it helps to introduce information slowly, as it gradually becomes relevant/noticeable to the characters. I play Dungeons and Dragons (basically a group-based storytelling game with dice), and our dungeon master (the person in charge of the game and the overarching story) does a LOT of worldbuilding, but doesn’t tell us about it until it becomes relevant for our characters or we interact with the world. When we enter a city, he gives us some basic information (the size, the climate, the general atmosphere, stuff you would notice by looking at a postcard) but doesn’t tell us all the details in one go, like the precise demographic makeup, every historical event, the internal power structure, where all the best taverns are, etc. To find that information, we have to walk around the city and talk to people and investigate, and we get bits of info here and there. And if we choose not to go down a particular path, he doesn’t tell us about it, even if he already created an intricate plot but we completely ignored the inciting incident. (Which has happened a couple times!) The beginning of the Hunger Games is a great example; we’re gradually introduced to more details about the world as Katniss draws connections between what her world is like and what she’s currently doing/thinking about.

Another tip is to think about how people process “worldbuilding” information in the real world, and how we think about the world around us. For example, our government system: most of us know that America is a democracy, and we choose our president by voting every four years (the political system), we know who the current president is (current state of things), and we know this all came about after the thirteen colonies declared independence from Britain (history). If we’re interested in politics or history, we may also know how the electoral college and the two-party system works, which party is in power in each of the three branches, or that the Constitution that set up the American governmental system was ratified on June 21, 1788. I would guess that considerably fewer people would be able to explain in detail how our first-past-the-post electoral system led to the development of exactly two major political parties, name each congress member and their platform, or list the names of everyone who signed the Constitution. If you want more examples, check out some academic nonfiction books about history; they go SUPER in-depth about specific topics and analyzes their impact on everything we know. All of these things shape the world we live in, but different people know it in different levels of detail. And even if you DO know these things, you’re not always thinking about them. Most often, the things at the top of people’s minds are the things that are most noticeable or directly affect them. So while you build a complex world, keep in mind that your characters might not know every single detail or realize how that affects them as a person.

These are great!

As you know, my next book, Sparrows in the Wind, is about the Trojan War, which figures in Greek mythology, although some parts of the myth may have really happened, as archaeological discoveries suggest.

When I was around nine or ten, I read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, which, though it was first published in 1942, is still selling briskly. I loved it and and reread it many times. When I started writing Sparrows in the Wind, I assumed that almost everybody knew the story of the Trojan War, just as most people know the fairy tale “Cinderella.” I didn’t think I’d have to do much world building.

Wrong, alas.

I asked my friend, the terrific kids’ book writer Karen Romano Young, to read the first eighty pages. She was bewildered.

When I explained the mythology, her eyes rolled back in her head and her mouth fell open. Until then, I hadn’t realized how complicated it all is, beginning with a banquet on Mount Olympus with the gods, a golden apple, and the goddess of discord.

I went back to page one and explained everything and finally finished the novel. I sent it to my editor, who wrote to me in her editorial letter that I had created an infodump (the first time I’d ever been told this in all the worlds I’ve made up), and the mythology still wasn’t clear, and she had to supplement her reading of my story with her own research.

Not what I’d hoped for.

So I started again, again.

This goes to Raina’s “when to share it,” which I had never had to think about before: My MC in the first half of my book is Cassandra of Troy, a minor figure in the myth, who is given the gift of seeing the future by the god Apollo. Then, after she won’t do what he wants, he curses his gift by making no one believe her.

When she receives the gift, in my unrevised telling, she knows immediately all the terrible things that will happen to Troy and the people she loves, and I pass the details on to the reader–the infodump.

Not telling everything at once seemed to me like tricking the reader, which, when another author does it, prompts two reactions in me: I think it’s fun but obvious–the story machinery is showing. But I did some of it anyway, in that I allow Cassandra to know more than her thoughts and dialogue tell the reader.

What I wound up doing mostly, though, was to have Cassandra herself see only one terrible event the first time the future is poured into her. The second time she looks, she stops the internal movie when the tragedy becomes too great for her to tolerate. The infodump goes away. Knowledge is revealed in digestible bites.

So that’s one strategy: find ways to break up the revelations into small morsels.

My favorite way is to introduce the world as our MC or another character comes upon it. Cassandra doesn’t know the future when my book opens, so it’s as new to her as it is to the reader. That’s handy, but it can’t always be that way.

My book begins twenty pages before Cassandra receives the future. She’s already in her world, which she knows and the reader doesn’t. How do we show it?

A little at a time, but quickly. The book starts with Cassandra awakening at dawn. She stretches lazily in bed (so there are beds) and leaps up, remembering that this is the day she will be kanephoros for the city of Troy.

What’s a kanephoros? She tells the reader in her worried thoughts. Being kanephoros is an honor, but it’s risky. She has to lead a procession in a festival for Apollo while carrying on her head (hands free!) a heavy basket of offerings for the god. If the basket falls off, the whole city will suffer. The reader frowns. Everybody makes mistakes! These gods aren’t very understanding.

For those who don’t know anything about Apollo, Cassandra tells the reader about him in her thoughts–that he’s her favorite god and why.

So thoughts and a POV character’s narration is a natural way to show our world.

Let’s consider the fairy tale “Puss in Boots.” Here’s the beginning from Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book:

There was a miller who left no more estate to the three sons he had than his mill, his ass, and his cat. The partition was soon made. Neither scrivener nor attorney was sent for. They would soon have eaten up all the poor patrimony. The eldest had the mill, the second the ass, and the youngest nothing but the cat. The poor young fellow was quite comfortless at having so poor a lot.

“My brothers,” said he, “may get their living handsomely enough by joining their stocks together; but for my part, when I have eaten up my cat, and made me a muff of his skin, I must die of hunger.”

The Cat, who heard all this, but made as if he did not, said to him with a grave and serious air:

“Do not thus afflict yourself, my good master.

And so on. Here’s a link to the rest of the story, which is in the public domain: https://www.worldoftales.com/fairy_tales/Andrew_Lang_fairy_books/Blue_fairy_book/The_Master_Cat_or,_Puss_in_Boots.html#gsc.tab=0.

The world building doesn’t begin in this excerpt until the third paragraph. When the cat is first introduced, there’s no hint that he’s anything extraordinary. I think we accept the abrupt shift because we know this is a fairy tale, and the story is mostly told rather than shown.

But if we were writing a novelized version, we’d have to prepare the reader. The first time the cat is mentioned, we’d want to drop something in that suggests he’s more than the usual feline.

If the youngest son is our MC, he can think of his dead father and the cat and of hints his father dropped. Our MC can talk to the cat as people talk to animals without expecting an answer in words. The cat can answer.

But let’s say our MC is Puss himself since he carries most of the action. Then the reader will know instantly that this is a world of super-smart cats. We’ll probably have to reveal quickly whether the second son’s donkey is super-smart too. We can bring this out in Puss’s thoughts or in something he does.

We never have to explain why cats are so smart unless that reason is essential to our plot. We establish it. This is the way things are. Brilliant cats.

That’s another strategy. We don’t need the history of the ways our story world differs from the reader’s–unless the history figures in our plot. We don’t build any more world than we need.

The reader will accept the world we’ve laid out, even if it’s wildly improbable (think Terry Pratchett’s Discworld carried on giant elephants and a giant turtle), especially if we bring it on early. Pratchett describes his world as soon as the reader opens a book. So that’s another strategy: Pile on the surprises while readers are still settling into their chairs.

In “Puss in Boots,” the reader learns that the story is unfolding in a monarchy. This comes up suddenly when the cat brings a rabbit to the king, so we probably want to alert the reader beforehand that there is a king and also that he has a daughter. How much introduction the two of them need depends on our plot. We don’t have to go into the details of the monarchy unless the plot calls for it. For example, the reader doesn’t have to know if there’s an assembly and how the members are appointed and how much power they have or how wealthy or impoverished the king’s subjects are. Unnecessary details may lead to the info dump. And we should keep in mind that readers of fantasy have a lot to keep track of. We don’t want them to sink under the weight of it all.

If you love worldbuilding, you can figure it all out and write down every bit. If your plot isn’t set, you can examine what you’ve come up with to find spots you can exploit to make trouble for your MC. Once you start the story itself, you’ll drop the details in gradually, but only the ones your story needs.

Here are three prompts:

• In “Puss in Boots,” when the king and his daughter go on an outing in their carriage, Puss contrives to have his master taken inside with them. Then Puss runs ahead of the carriage and tells the peasants this from Lang: “Good people, you who are reaping, if you do not tell the King that all this corn belongs to the Marquis of Carabas, you shall be chopped as small as herbs for the pot.” The good people believe him! Write a scene that makes his threat believable, or write an entire story that leads up to the threat.

• Not much later, Puss comes to a castle owned by an ogre, and this is the first the reader learns that ogres exist in this world. Write an earlier scene that introduces the ogre.

• Andrew Lang (1844-1912) is best known for his collections of folk and fairy tales. Imagine that he brings his “Puss in Boots” as I’ve quoted it here to a workshop for a critique. Write the scene, imagining who might be in the workshop and inventing your own Andrew Lang as a character, rather than the historical figure. (For this, I recommend reading the whole story–which is short.)

Have fun, and save what you write!

Magic Central

On April 24, 2019, SluggishWriter wrote, I write primarily middle grade and young adult fantasy (as well as some science fiction). As much as I love magic systems, I struggle to make them fit within my stories, both plot-wise and scene-by-scene-wise. I don’t want my stories to have a useless magic system attached, but I can’t figure out how to make them important, even if I love writing them in. Part of this is that I tend to feel like special magical objects and such are kind of cliché in fantasy, even though I love reading stories about that sort of thing. My magic can get a little too abstract because of this. If anyone has any tips, I’d really appreciate that!

Two of you responded.

Christie V Powell: Brandon Sanderson, the fantasy author, teaches a university class and has posted all of his lectures online. Here’s his lecture on magic systems: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jXAcA_y3l6M.

Melissa Mead: Maybe figure out what’s unique about your world first, and then build your magic system around that? And choose your MC and their dilemma based on something that’s different about them relative to this thing.

Ex: Maybe your world has “Phoenix trees” that burn on the top while replenishing themselves from the bottom.
And magic in this world relates to the trees–eating the fruit, carving the wood, climbing the trees without getting burnt…
And your MC either can or can’t do something that everyone else can’t/can, which causes a problem, bothers them, or otherwise makes them want to change this thing.

I love the phoenix trees ideas! I’d love to see one.

And I’ve watched many of Brandon Sanderson’s lectures, which I’ve found very interesting. I marvel at how methodical and rational he is about writing–where as I count on intuition and muddling to get me, eventually, where I need to go.

So here’s a weird question: Does fantasy need magic at all? Please weigh in.

I don’t know if it does, necessarily. Susan Fletcher’s Shadow Spinners, which I recommend heartily, is a fresh take on the framing story of The Arabian Nights. It feels like fantasy and comes entirely out of fairy tale land, but there’s no magic.

As a child–and to this day–I love to read fairy tales, which I did not get from Disney but from the old versions that I found in my child’s encyclopedia and in the Lang fairy tale books (which are all available online for free, since they’re in the public domain). If you don’t know the original tales, I’d suggest going to Lang. (The books are named after colors: The Blue Fairy Tale Book, The Lilac Fairy Tale Book, etc.–there are lots of them.) I still love the magical apparatus in fairy tales: the flying carpets, the dead horse who can talk, genies. So I’d suggest an afternoon spent reading fairy tales and, if you like, taking notes. Think about how the magic functions in these stories.

Not that I have anything against Disney. But Disney and fairy tale novels like mine and others’ are too filled in. The old fairy tales that you’ve read or are about to read are short. Nothing is dwelt on, so the magical elements aren’t, either. The flying carpet in these stories is just transportation, but what does it feel like to ride one? The dead talking horse merely delivers its messages, and the tale rattles on, but how does it sound? Does it sing? Does spittle fly? It’s in the details that we get away from the ordinary.

Regarding clichés. Sure these old fairy-tale devices have been done before, but readers–and writers–go to them because they love them. There’s comfort in their familiarity. I use them.

I don’t think we should worry about cliché anyway, as I’ve said more than once on the blog. The worry tends just to fuel our self-criticism. If we tell our story as we alone can, the clichés will shrivel up.

What technology does for us today, magic does for the characters in fairy tales, and we can use it that way. Your character needs to get somewhere in a hurry? Bring in the seven-league boots. Your character needs to see what’s going on a hundred miles away? Give her a crystal ball. And so on. We just have to pay attention to the opportunities.

We can complicate things. Our MC has a crystal ball, but it works only when she’s calm–and she needs it only when she’s not calm! Notice also that we’ve introduced two magical elements here. The crystal ball can see into the distance, and it’s psychic, too. And we’re moving into plot as well, because our MC has trouble controlling her emotions, a liability in a hero.

Of course we can’t let the magic solve the story’s problems. We have to limit its power and/or make it a source of trouble.

Magic is part of our world-building, as Melissa Mead’s phoenix trees demonstrate. Hers is a world that accommodates that sort of flora.

An easy-peasy way to introduce magic is to include a magical creature or a species of magical creatures in our world. These can be ogres, dragons, elves, and so on. Or we can bring in a kind of creature never before seen in the pages of a book, as I did with brunkas in my mystery Stolen Magic. As soon as the creatures are in, the world becomes magical. They don’t even have to do much that’s magical. They can live among humans. Broad-minded humans and elves can seek out diversity by living side-by-side. Some ENT doctors can specialize in diseases that afflict pointy ears. We can let our plot make room for a creature or two. If our MC is on a quest, she can bring a dragon along, and we can decide in what ways he’ll make things easier for her and in what ways harder. She can encounter evil gnomes, who stand in the way of her fulfilling her quest.

The problem at the center of our story can be magical, as I made it in Ella Enchanted and Ogre Enchanted, both of which revolve around a fairy’s gift, and The Two Princesses of Bamarre, which is about a magical illness, the Gray Death. If magic is at the core, it won’t be an appendage to our story, it will be central.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC has found a crystal ball in a cave. Inside the ball is a tiny person who is wringing her hands and muttering incomprehensibly. Your MC needs to know if it’s safe for her to leave the cave, and she can’t just go to the opening and peek, because the villain who’s after her may be there. She needs the crystal ball, and she has to figure out how it works. Write the scene.

∙ We’re in the world of phoenix trees. Suppose the tree produces a single fruit every 300 years, and whoever eats it will live until the next fruit ripens. The 325-year-old who ate the last fruit wants to keep it from ever ripening. Your MC wants it for her beloved cousin who’s dying of an arrow wound, and other people want it, too. Write a scene. Write the whole story.

∙ List ten other plot possibilities that center on the phoenix trees. Pick one and write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Out of the Info Dumpster

This continues last week’s post with the rest of Nicole’s questions and Christie V Powell’s responses:

From Nicole:

Q#2-How much essential information should I include in the first few paragraphs (or chapters) of my story? When I try to introduce essential info, it always comes out in a jumbled mess and makes no sense whatsoever. How do I spread out the info across the plot?

Q#3- I want to make the beginnings interesting, but sometimes I want to avoid action as an opener and introduce the plot calmly. How do I do that without losing the reader after the first sentence?

From Christie V Powell:

2 For introducing information, I’d suggest looking at some of your favorite sequels and see how they summarize the story before and how much they put in. Sometimes it helps to use a “Watson character,” someone who has no idea what’s going on and so needs to have things explained. You can also add short flashbacks if they have to do with the subject at hand: showing her home in flames to explain why she can’t go back, for instance. I found that I knew too much about the story and didn’t know what needed to be said, so I had some new readers look at it and tell me where I needed to explain things.

3 Ella Enchanted doesn’t start with action. The first chapter is a quick summary of her life and what brought her to this point. And yet we love it. Having an interesting voice helps a lot–I’m not sure it would have worked in 3rd person, for instance. I think the important thing is that there’s conflict, whether or not it involves action. Ella is pitted against her curse–there’s conflict right from the beginning, even though she’s not fighting ogres or something.

Thank you, Christie V Powell for the kind words about Ella Enchanted!

What follows will jump around between Q#2 and Q#3.

Looking for help in beloved books can be instructive, as Christie V Powell suggests, and these don’t have to be sequels. Any admired fantasy will do.

In some of his Discworld books, Terry Pratchett starts with background about his universe. It’s not action, but the strangeness of this world draws me in. The appeal is intellectual more than emotional. I want to know more about a flat world that rides on the back of four elephants who stand on a giant turtle, so I start turning pages.

That’s one strategy, to think about the universe we’re operating in and what might most surprise the reader, and then we can state it directly. This is probably easiest to do in third person. In first, the reader may wonder how the MC knows that other universes exist. However, we can set the stage in third person and then shift to first for the rest of the story if that’s our preference.

Further along in his books, Pratchett sometimes gives information in footnotes, which are usually humorous. I love them, but they do take me out of the unfolding action–though I don’t care. I’m a total fan. When I read a Pratchett book I abandon myself to whatever he throws at me in whatever form he throws it.

We can do something similar. We can use footnotes or sidebars or information in outlined boxes. But what we reveal in these asides has to be worth it–has to feel key to understanding or has to charm on its own and can’t take more words than are strictly necessary–or the reader will start skipping.

In her famous beginning of Pride and Prejudice, Austen starts out as calm as pudding with irony and an abstract principle: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that every single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

This isn’t fantasy, but the early nineteenth century is in some ways more distant and different from our own world than anything our early twenty-first century minds can create out of thin air.

I can’t resist Austen’s beginning, not even after umpteen readings. The first time I read it, my response was, Huh? Let me look at that again. Then it was, Ha! And then: Single man? Wife? Romance coming up. I’m in.

So we can even start with an abstraction, if it’s interesting.

Humor always works for me. A beginning can be devoid of action, but if it’s funny, I will give what follows a chance.

Despite my admiration for Terry Pratchett, I’ve never used his direct delivery approach. I tend to throw readers in at the deep end, swim or sink. In a way, entering the world of a book is like learning a language, and I prefer the immersion method. I’m not aware of this while I’m writing. I know the territory, so I just write as though the reader does, too. I assume that if what’s going on is just comprehensible enough and interesting enough, he’ll want to soldier on.

But I confused the copy editor for the Two Princesses prequel, The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, and she had lots of questions. On one, my editor wrote in response to let it go because an information dump early in the story wouldn’t work. (I think she’d agree it never works, no matter when it appears.) In other cases, my editor asked me to address the copy editor’s question in the manuscript. But when I did, I dropped the info in quickly, as minimally as possible, a sentence, a phrase, rarely a paragraph. And sometimes, I confess, I thought the copy editor’s questions came out of nothing more than curiosity, because the answers weren’t essential to the story, and sometimes they just over-complicated what was going on. So I ignored ‘em.

If we don’t want to start with action, we can begin with character. Say our MC Katya is a kitchen wench in the king’s castle. The book opens with her chopping vegetables and imagining a conversation between the carrots and the onions. The reader will learn about her, both because she’s someone who wonders what veggies think and from the speeches she gives them. We can even make the reader like or dislike her depending on the words she puts in the veggies’ not-mouths. And we can drop in some hints at future conflict even though we haven’t introduced it directly.

We can open with actual conversation, but we should resist the urge to make our characters say what they already know just to inform the reader, because that sort of conversation is forced.

Katya’s best friend, Mark, who serves crumpets to the prime minister, can come into the kitchen and stop for a moment at Katya’s chopping board. Mark can tell about the mouse that ran over the queen’s slippers at breakfast. Katya knows nothing of this, so their dialogue will be fresh. We can drop in impressions of characters who are going to figure in our story, and we can show the relationship between the friends, which will be revealing about both.

Let’s use this example to show how we can slip in information without our story grinding to a halt. Suppose in the anecdote Mark tells Katya, the mouse jumped from the slippers to the table and ran across one of the golden plates. The reader thinks, Golden plates? Why does that seem familiar? Mark adds, “That’s when Her Majesty fainted.” Now we’ve highlighted our clue by the fainting. Katya says, “What about the baby?” The reader thinks, There’s a baby? I think I recognize this story. Mark can answer, “Oh, she slept right through it.” That will probably drive the nail home: golden plates + girl baby + good sleeper = “Sleeping Beauty.”

Here are three prompts:

∙ Write the veggie-chopping scene and the imagined carrot-onion discussion and make the reader dislike Katya, who may be the villain in the coming tale. If you like, keep going.

∙ Begin your story with Katya in the castle kitchen and subtly introduce a different fairy tale, maybe “Snow White” or “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” In this version, she can be likable or not–your choice.

∙ Begin your story with an abstract principle. You can use an adage like “A stitch in time saves nine,” or borrow from ancient Greek philosophy with this from Democritus: “The world is change; life is opinion.” Or anything else that interests you.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Strange New World

On December 20, 2015, Zoe wrote, So I’m working on inventing the world where my story is set right now, and I’m totally overwhelmed with having to invent languages, cultures, religions, political structure, geography, history, all that stuff. I was just wondering, how in depth do you go when you invent the world for your stories, like Kyrria, Bamarre, etc.? How much do you invent about your worlds?

It’s hard to remember what my thinking was with Kyrria and Bamarre, because I wrote the books so long ago. The latest world that I invented entirely was for my mysteries, A Tale of Two Castles and Stolen Magic. And even those I don’t remember well. A kind of amnesia falls over me about the hard parts of writing a book, and the whole first draft is always hard.

So for that reason, I looked at the beginning of my notes on A Tale of Two Castles–and found virtually nothing about world building. The novel is super loosely based on “Puss ‘N’ Boots,” and what I see is me wondering about Puss and why he’s so weirdly clever, not to mention why he can talk. So the world would have to accommodate magical cats. I speculated about introducing a genie, so then this would also be a world with genies, probably because I’ve never written a genie, and they interest me. (Neither the genies nor the magical cats made it into my story. Maybe in a future book.)

A word search on world in my notes. gave me nothing about creating the universe of my story. What I was doing was starting to work out my plot. I do remember that I wanted to use as much as I could of the Middle Ages. In Ella Enchanted, Fairest, and The Two Princesses of Bamarre I invented a fairy tale land that never was historical–but some readers intuited a medieval setting–and must have gotten a prettified idea of the period. In Fairest, for example, I dwelled a lot on fashion, and I used actual clothing, mostly gowns, from several reference books. However, I leaped centuries back and forth, and the outfits were post-medieval, because medieval dress was much simpler than the periods that followed, and I wanted to make Aza look ridiculous.

For the Middle Ages, I bought Castle by David Macaulay, which cannot be beat for clarity, and used his castle as the blueprint for mine. I got two books on daily life in the Middle Ages, not that I read all of either of them–just the parts I needed. And I supplemented the books with googling. For example, I learned what covered the floors in a medieval house: reeds. No carpets yet. And tapestries came later than the thirteenth century, which is the time I focused on.

Unless you enjoy world-building–some people do–why make up more than we have to? I do like to create new versions of imaginary creatures, like dragons, and there aren’t any real-life models anyway, so I spend time on them. In Stolen Magic, I made up an entire new kind of being, the brunka, and that was fun, too.

But my kingdoms have always been monarchies, although I could invent a new system of government, which probably would be fascinating. However, I might also lose myself in it. And when I get lost, when I haven’t made trouble for a character in a while, I get bored.

When my stories involve travel, I do have to come up with geography. But, again, I’ve never developed a new kind of landscape. I’m an admirer, though, of writers who have. I’m thinking of the forest of Ents in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, and the geography in the Discworld invented by Terry Pratchett.

I did create parts of languages in Ella Enchanted, Fairest, and Ever, but I did that because I wanted to, because I loved the languages in The Lord of the Rings, especially the orcs’. I didn’t have to, I could have made all the creatures speak Kyrrian.

Our universe, in my opinion, pales in importance next to plot and character. We don’t have to defy the laws of earth if our plot doesn’t demand it. But, since many of us are into fantasy, it’s nice to indulge ourselves if we want to.

However, sometimes the world steers our plot. In my Disney Fairies books, which take place in Fairy Haven and in which the fairies are the main characters, I had to think about this sort of fairy, and I did create a partially new world, which leaned a lot on the one invented by James M. Barrie in Peter Pan. Looking at my earliest notes, I see myself grappling with the world, but always in hopes of finding conflict. My first idea was that humans were building a bridge to Neverland. Then I decided that the island, which had floated, would get stuck on something. And my notion was that either of these would disrupt the island’s power to confer eternal youth on its inhabitants. I didn’t use these set-ups, but the one I finally came up with did create a crisis in aging, and I had a blast nudging the classic characters along the trajectory of life. Peter Pan, for example, loses some baby teeth!

So, I’d say we should let making trouble be our guide in our world-building. If we are going to invent a legal system, for instance, let’s come up with a law or two that endangers citizens, especially our characters. If we’re going to dream up customs, let’s include a few that oppose what our MC wants or needs.

We can toggle back and forth between world and plot. We can think, What kind of government do we want? And when we think, let’s not leap immediately to tyranny for maximum trouble. We can list possibilities. Maybe, for example, our kingdom is governed by a committee of university deans who want the best for everyone. How might this go wrong? Considering potential problems, we begin to imagine our MC. Who might she be, and what might she want that would run counter to her benevolent rulers?

Here are three prompts.

∙ Imagine that world ruled by university deans. Write a page of description. Write a scene in which your MC bumps up against authority. If you like, keep going.

∙ Your fictional world is our real one, contemporary modern life. Make it a slice of the ordinary that you know well, your neighborhood or your town or the theater group you’re part of. Change only one thing to make it fantasy. Make a list of what that single thing might be, and consider how it might affect your main character. Write a scene. Keep writing.

∙ Going entirely into the strange and unknown, your story is set inside a black hole in dark matter. Take a half hour to google black holes and dark matter (which I haven’t done). Write a page of notes about the possibilities. Write a scene. Be as strange as you can while still being understandable.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Historical’ish

For this post, I’m starting with a word that charms me. Everyday, Wordsmith.org emails me a vocabulary word, usually one I don’t know. Here’s one I want to remember, and posting it here will help me. This is how it appears on the Wordsmith site:

kenning
PRONUNCIATION:
(KEN-ing)

MEANING:
noun: A figurative, usually compound, expression used to describe something. For example, whale road for an ocean and oar steed for a ship.

ETYMOLOGY:
From Old Norse kenna (to know). Ultimately from the Indo-European root gno- (to know). Earliest documented use: 1320. Kennings were used especially in Old Norse and Old English poetry.

USAGE:
“The hero, Beewolf (a kenning for bear, named the ‘bee wolf’ for its plundering of hives), heads to the Golden Hall.”
John Garth; Monster Munch; New Statesman (London, UK); May 30, 2014.

“In the dawn of the English language the earliest poets or scops (minstrels) invented words like ‘battleflash’ to describe a sword, or they would identify a boat by its function with a kenning like ‘wave-skimmer’.”
Samuel Hazo. What’s in a Name?; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; Feb 17, 2008.

I love this and plan to make up a kenning the next chance I get.

On May 27, 2015, Elisa wrote, I’ve totally revised my TTDP story. It was very hard for me. It’s still hard for me, because now the time setting is more similar to ancient Roman instead of medieval. Well, more or less. It’s kind of a cross between Rome at it’s various time periods and Tira in RIVER SECRETS. But most of my stories are set in medieval or renaissance or Viking-ish time periods, and I’m having trouble getting this together. Does anyone have any thoughts on world building to share?

Many of you did.

Bug: I’m writing a book in a setting different than my normal-ish type, too, so I bought a book by Jill Williamson called STORY WORLD FIRST. It’s fairly cheap on kindle and was very helpful, and fun to read, too. It had a lot of useful things to think about.

Martina Preston: Medieval time periods are just so much easier to manipulate! The only thing I would say is to research on the Romans and maybe (I know there are some out there) read some books written about a character from the Roman time period. Also, if all else fails, you always have Wikipedia =).

Song4myKing: I think you’ll have to start with some basic knowledge of place and time, then let your mind explore aspects of life that probably won’t be included in the story. Imagine your character in the clothes she’d wear and follow her through a day or a particular event as if you’re watching a movie of her. Another thing that helps me establish place is sketching a little map of where things are in relation to each other. Once I drew up plans for an entire house because I had someone trying to escape unnoticed from there.

Melissa Mead: This might have some helpful stuff in it, although I haven’t looked through it all: http://www.alden.nu/re-wb.shtml.
And maybe this? http://www.timemaps.com/civilization/Ancient-Rome, which came from “CL Favorites” on the Carpe Libris webpage. (You can get there by clicking on my name.) The group’s not very active nowadays, but there are some handy resources on there.

Thank you, Melissa!

Many of my books are medieval’ish, too, but I ventured into Mesopotamia’ish for Ever. However–and this is a big distinction–my Mesopotamia is entirely fantastical. No mention is made of the real Mesopotamia or any actual city-state that existed at the time. There is no Europe, no Asia, which freed me to diverge from history, although I did do a fair amount of research and used as much as I could. But if we are setting our story in a real place called Rome, I think we’re obliged to get our facts right or close to right, even if we bring in enchanted princes and an underground landscape, which, come to think of it, exists in Roman mythology.

If we’re setting our story in a real place and we do change real history, it’s nice to note the change in an afterword. For example, if we decide to have Caesar survive his assassination, which becomes merely an attempt, we can note that. We don’t want a generation of children growing up believing in the miraculous hundred-year rule of Julius Caesar!

But my recommendation, if you don’t want to do a lot of research, would be not to set your story in a real place and a real time, and you can still use the actual middle ages as your backdrop. The architecture of your castle can be drawn from a real castle of the period in Scotland, with only the design of the drawbridge changed–or not. Just be sure to change the name so as not to confuse your reader. Copyright didn’t exist in the middle ages, and if it had, it would have elapsed long ago. (Of course you mustn’t reproduce a photograph of the castle for your book cover, unless you have the photographer’s permission!)

After Ella Enchanted came out, I received more than one letter from a child who thanked me for educating her about the middle ages. I felt so guilty! Ella isn’t even medieval’ish. It’s entirely in fairy tale land. Castle architecture is entirely invented, and everything else. Same with Fairest and The Two Princesses of Bamarre. But, starting with A Tale of Two Castles, I’ve made an effort to be more accurate in setting and daily life, even though the latest books also have nothing to do with historical kingdoms.

My choice of time period is usually determined by my story idea, and I assume that Elisa’s shift came about for the same reason, because plot and time period influence each other. Rome makes me think of mythology, a pantheon of gods, heroes, conquest, spread of civilization, philosophy that came down from the Greeks. And a warmer climate than northern Europe. These may figure into her plot.

My research is guided by my plot and the settings it takes place in. If I were setting my TTDP (“The Twelve Dancing Princesses”) story in Roman times, I’d want to know about the life of women, especially unmarried ones, during the period. I’d be interested in attitudes toward a practice of locking daughters up at night (though I might not be able to find such a thing). And, in a warmer climate with a more open architecture, how easy would confining them be? Did women and men dance with each other? I have a vague idea that they didn’t.

There seem to be books on daily life in every period. I have two for the middle ages and one for ancient Mesopotamia. I bet some exist for ancient Rome, which you can request from your library, and the answer to most questions probably can be hunted down online, especially for us fantasists, who aren’t chained to historical accuracy. I usually look at more than one site.

I’d also suggest reading Roman and Greek myths. The Roman ones are often drawn from earlier Greek originals. I grew up on Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, which I still love for its charm and fairy tale quality. It’s probably very outdated, though it’s still in print. The myths supply a glimpse into daily life and ideas of the time.

Here are five prompts:

∙ Some women in Roman days, according to myth, were huntresses, kind of wild women. Set your version of “Snow White” then, and make your MC the huntress that the evil queen commands to kill Snow White. Dealing with this privileged princess (however she decides to) is just part of a day’s work for your MC–except Snow White’s mess draws her in. Write the story.

∙ In your Roman “Snow White” tale, invent your own kenning (vocabulary word above) to describe the forest and the dwarfs’ cottage.

∙ Choose a Greek or Roman myth and expand it, as you would a fairy tale, keeping it in its period.

∙ Take the myth, or choose a different one and set it in a fantasy middle ages. What changes? I mean, plot changes, not just setting.

∙ Now move the myth into a contemporary setting. What changes?

Have fun, and save what you write!

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!

Distinguishing cultures

Classes have started for me! So the blog is going on its every-other-week schedule. The next post will be on September 17th. From time to time, I’ll let you know how my poetry studies are going, and I may inflict another poetry post or two on you.

A few days ago an online grammar-correction company approached me by email, complimenting my blog and offering me an Amazon gift card. I’m pretty sure the company rep was hoping I would recommend the program here. I ignored the email but checked the program with some writing samples. First I copied in a paragraph from the manuscript I’m working on. Then I typed in a few sentences from a friend’s published book. The program picked up mistakes that weren’t there, and it went beyond grammar into the complicated region of style. Next, I tried out a paragraph from Peter Pan. To its credit, the program recognized that the Peter Pan paragraph wasn’t original (which it didn’t for my friend’s book), but it still found plenty wrong with the writing!

The point is, I’d stay away from automated grammar and writing assistance. We need to master these areas ourselves. Besides, I can’t believe that a program, at least at this point in technological development, would recognize interesting writing that takes a few chances.

Take that, you bribe-offering person!

Now for this week’s post. On July 14, 2013, Elisa wrote, I am having problems with making up my cultures. Don’t get me wrong, I love it, very much, but I’m having a really hard time. I feel they are not clearly defined enough, and try as I might, I can’t come up with truly interesting, DIFFERENT cultures. They seem too close to other ones, or real ones, and I don’t want that. It’s not as though I’m really bad at it or anything, but they seem to lack definition.

I looked up “culture” in Wikipedia, and found a lot of help, so I’m copying in part of the article, which I confess I didn’t read all of:

Aspects of human expression include both material culture and ephemeral elements. These include:
• Language and dialect
• Science
• Technology
• Cuisine
• Aesthetics – art, music, literature, fashion, and architecture
• Values, ideology
• Social conventions, including norms, taboos, and etiquette
• Gender roles
• Recreational activities such as festivals and holidays
• Commercial practices
• Social structure
• Religion

Since this is fantasy, I’d add Magic and Powers as two additional categories. And there are probably more. Child-rearing practices come to mind. Here’s an early prompt: Jot down other aspects of culture that occur to you.

Wow! We have a lot to fool around with.

And here’s another prompt: For those aspects that may come into in your story, list the possibilities. I’ll try it with dance:
fast
slow
prim
exhibitionistic
alone
in pairs
in lines
in squares
with stamping and clapping
silent
partners traded
bumping into other dancers
standing on one’s hands
bouncing on one’s head

I got a little strange at the end, which is fine when we’re trolling for ideas.

Since Elisa is dealing with warlike countries, we may decide that one civilization has advanced offensive weapons balanced by the magic of another land. The third may be a buffer between the two.

We don’t always have to contrast the three, either. We can reveal the dance of one, the cuisine of another, and the attitudes of the third toward education (which might fit into the child-rearing category). But whatever we show needs to have a place in our plot, in my opinion. I don’t care for an information dump. If dance isn’t important to our story, there’s no reason to delve into it.

Most of what the reader learns about culture will probably be best discovered through our characters. Our narrator, whether third-person or first, may need to give us some background. In Ella Enchanted, for example, Ella devotes a paragraph to describing ogres before the reader meets them. But just a single paragraph. The action moves forward most smoothly when we keep the explanations to a minimum. We show the reader how a culture handles dance, for example again, by having our MC gyrate and shimmy or step sedately with a beloved or despised partner.

Culture permeates everything, whether in fantasy or realistic fiction or real life, and there are variations even within a larger culture, even in contemporary stories, and certainly in life. Families, as you may have noticed, have their own cultures. My mother’s idea of a good life involved art appreciation, Culture with a capital C, so when we were children my sister and I were taken to museums, theater, ballet, concerts. How lucky we were! My friends’ parents had different interests, which benefited my pals in other ways.

Here are three prompts:

• Your MC is orphaned and has to live in new circumstances. Pick one of these and write the scene that follows his arrival in his new home, or write the whole story: a foster home; an orphanage; with his grandparents; with his seven first cousins; on the streets.

• From her earliest childhood on, your MC feels that she was born into the wrong family. Write a story that covers a crucial week in her life.

• The culture in your story may be shaped by the conditions under which the people live. Write a story that takes place in one of the following settings or situations (or you can combine): underground; in a severe climate; among a tribe of people who do extremely dangerous work; in a country that’s been at war for fifty years. Be sure to reveal the culture of the society you pick.

Have fun, and save what you write!