Category Archives: World Building
Recently, I was thrilled to answer some questions posed by a great writer friend of mine, Heather Day Gilbert. Among other projects, she is trying to find a publisher for her fantastic-sounding Viking novel. I can’t wait to read it.
In this interview, we talk about writing YA, world building and Indie publishing. It was a lot of fun. Thanks, Heather!
Today I’m guest posting over on fellow writer Lisa Orchard’s blog, where she has kindly allowed me to talk about the inspiration behind Ocean of Dust, my debut YA fantasy that I hope to publish end of September.
My work-in-progress is a dark fantasy featuring a splattering of undead. (“splattering” seemed an appropriate grouping). I’m not writing a paranormal or urban fantasy, so I shall be avoiding the usual suspects: vampires, werewolves, and zombies. I have nothing against them, and I’m a bit of a zombie fan, but I want to bring some of the rarer creatures of the night to life (or unlife, I guess).
Mythology and legend is full of nasty beasties, and here’s only a few of them. Remember back to the classic movies like Jason and the Argonauts and how cool the animated skeletons were? I’ve got to have them, but they’re pretty mundane compared to what I have in mind. I definitely have a place for ghouls. Love them! I haven’t decided about ghosts and their incorporeal cousins yet.
So here’s where I’d love your help:
- What are your favourite undead?
- What ikky creatures would you love to read about?
- What do you expect from a dark fantasy?
I’d love to read your comments, thanks.
Sometimes you read a book where the setting is so rich, so beautifully described and original that you feel right there beside the characters. I believe that the setting can be as compelling as the characters, particularly in a series.
You know, that feeling when you itch to read the next book as much for the world setting as for the characters. My favourites include: Pern, Castle Gormenghast, The Shire, Mordor, Narnia, Leiber’s Lankhmar, Brust’s Adrilankha, the USS Enterprise.
In many cases, the setting grounds the hero. The two become synonymous. Batman wouldn’t be so sophisticated without his mansion and hi-tech bat cave; Han Solo would be just a scoundrel without the Falcon. When Bond visits Q, it isn’t Q that fascinates us, but his vault of secret and deadly devices. Moreover, no old-school horror story can exist without the mountainous, lightning-struck castle, or the ivy-covered abandoned house, or the midnight fog in the graveyard.
We should be inspired by the examples above, to bring an extra dimension to our worlds and locations, to make our characters react to their environment with the same emotional fervor as they would toward another character. The character should feel genuine fear, hatred, disgust or a sense of sanctuary, relief or relaxation. The setting enhances the characters. It’s damn spooky that we are led to believe that River becomes at-one with the Serenity in Firefly, but we do believe because the characters are so at home in that tiny ship. We would never look upon Picard, Data, Worf and Riker as a family if there were no Enterprise, no binding force to hold them together.
What are your favourite worlds and what measures do you take to turn your settings into another character?
A picture paints a thousand words. Isn’t it fun when a work of fiction includes cool appendices with extras? It’s like checking out the Special Features on a movie DVD. Have you considered adding extras to your novel?
Whether they see print is up to the publisher of course, since they add extra pages and cost. In the case of maps or illustrations, they may also have to commission an artist, unless the author is particularly adept at drawing. Though hand-drawn maps have a charm of their own – check out Tolkien’s maps in The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings.
Typical appendices include:
- Illustrations of people, places, and items in the book. Often these are included at the appropriate point in the text.
- Glossary of names, terms, and language
- History, family trees or other genealogy information
What others have you seen? Please comment below and let me know.
Such items are commonplace in fantasy and sci-fi novels, where readers enjoy feasting on maps of the imaginary world. In a great quest novel, I always have a bookmark on the map page(s) and flick back and forth as the characters move from place to place. But then I have always loved maps. Glossaries can help explain alien terminology or science, or translate common slang in an urban fantasy novel. Pronunciation guides can be useful too. How many times have you happily pronounced a character or place name from a book, only to be totally surprised when you hear the author say it with an entirely different inflection? A friend of mine thought that J.K. Rowling’s Hermione character was pronounced HERM-EE-OWN, until she saw the movies. You could argue that it doesn’t really matter, but it’s interesting to appreciate the author’s intent.
Maps aren’t just for worlds. They can be on the micro level too. That assault on the evil sorcerer’s fortress can have a new perspective if the author provides floor plans. Literary purism suggests that the narrative should convey the scene adequately for every reader, but what’s the harm in a map reminding us that the wizard’s tower was on the opposite side of the castle from the temple spire?
Maps and glossaries don’t only apply to fantasy and sci-fi. What about a map of the island for that contemporary thriller set in a Russian arctic research facility? Historical fiction could benefit from a Timeline, glossary or family trees. And what did that mid-west town look like in Victorian times? How about a street map with important buildings labelled?
Are these extras helpful and informative, or distraction and spoilers? Let me know what you think.
In 1961, Frank Drake, one of the founders of the SETI Institute (Search for Extra Terrestrial Life) came up with his famous equation representing the number of intelligent alien civilisations in our galaxy. Since there are so many variables, whose values we can only guess at, it’s no surprise that everyone comes up with a different result. In the course of some recent research, I revisited the Drake Equation and thought I’d publish my own results.
The Drake Equation:
N = R* . Fp . Ne . Fl. Fi . Fc . L
• R = average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
• Fp = fraction of those stars that have planets
• Ne = average number of planets per star that can support life
• Fl = fraction that actually develop life
• Fi = fraction that develop intelligent life
• Fc = fraction that develop enough technology for us to detect their existence
• L = length of time in years that these civilisations release detectable signals into space
Drake’s own numbers worked out as follows:
N = 10/yr . 50% . 2. 100% . 1% . 1% . 10,000 years, or
N = 10 x 0.5 x 2 x 1 x 0.01 x 0.01 x 10000
Therefore, Drake imagined 10 detectable, intelligent civilisations in our galaxy. Wow. No wonder it’s an empty place out there – our galaxy covers an immense volume of space.
N = 10/yr . 60% . 4 . 100% . 1% . 50% x 5000
OK, so this isn’t good science, just my own guesses. My basis is the speculation that Earth, Mars, Titan and Europa all have (or had) life, and that half of all civilisations become technologically advanced, but don’t stay that way for long. I’m not suggesting they necessarily fail, just that they evolve means to hide themselves, such as Dyson Spheres.
So what did I come up with:
N = 10 x 0.6 x 4 x 1 x 0.01 x 0.5 x 5000
N = 600 intelligent civilisations in our galaxy.
If the galaxy fills 39 million million cubic light years, there ought to be a civilisation every 65 thousand million cubic l.y, or within 4000 l.y. of us. OK, so now my book needs a pretty fast superluminal propulsion system to travel that distance.
That was all a bit of fun. Want to make your own guesses?
Using data from NASA’s Kepler orbiting telescope, scientists have just seen the first direct evidence of a
planet orbiting a binary star system, which they are dubbing Tatooine after the classic desert planet in Star Wars. This is a fascinating new development in our continual charting of extrasolar planets, of which several hundred have been found to date.
This is particularly topical for me, since my current manuscript is set on a world orbiting two suns, a bright yellow/orange star called Eldrar and a smaller, blue/white star named Indar. Alas, Kepler-16’s star system doesn’t resemble my own.
Choosing a binary star system was part of the careful design of my world. We have all read SF or fantasy where the world is so alien that much of the terminology, descriptions, creatures, technology, etc. means nothing to us as a reader. The author’s intent is to reproduce an incomprehensible, alien world. We spend the first chapter(s) feeling like a stranger in a strange land, fighting to get to grips with it all. More talented authors lessen this culture shock, by using terminology in a way that allows us to grasp the real-world equivalent, or take the jargon at face value and go with the flow.
At the other extreme, some fantasy worlds are so similar to medieval Earth, often feudal Europe or Japan, that nothing needs explaining. Easy to read, but they lack the flavour, the spice of experiencing an exciting, far-off planet. I chose to take the popular middle ground, interspersing terminology and concepts, bizarre places and creatures, with more familiar terms like broom or bucket. I hope this allows me to keep the reader immersed in my world, without the constant jarring of unfamiliar words.
Hence, my two suns allow me to remind the reader often that “we aren’t in Kansas”, by a simple reference to a twin suns-set, or the image of two stars hanging above the horizon, just like those classic pictures of Tatooine. A simple, effective device, but one that becomes more important to the plot of later books.