How do you build a world?

Part 1: The Five W’s and a H

Before reporting became a dying craft, every newbie was taught that a news story had to answer five fundamental questions:

Who, What, Where, When, Why

… and sometimes, How.

In any piece of fiction, these questions are just as fundamental.

I’m going to talk about The Questions, here, while referencing a particular set of books, my own, The Were Chronicles – “Random”, “Wolf”, and “Shifter”.

Question 1: WHO?

When a squib arrived in my inbox announcing a forthcoming anthology of short stories about Weres, – accompanied by an admonishment of “and let’s see something different than the usual tired old tropes!” – I sat down to write a story that immediately popped into my head.

It was a story about a kind of Were-being that was very definitely not a “tired old trope” – it was something that I’d never seen described before, a wholly crazy out-of-left-field idea…

…the Random Were.

A Random Were was a shape-changer who would change into the last warm-blooded creature they saw just before the moment of their Turn – and if it was their FIRST Turn then that would remain their primary form, the form that they will always turn to if they do not see any other critters cross their path in the crucial moments.

The idea had some wonderful comedic possibilities – and in fact the short story I began for that anthology was very light and humorous. It began by positing an unfortunate farmyard incident which left my protagonist’s mother stuck for the eternity of her existence on this world… as a Were-chicken. And trust me, this still gets a laugh if I read that section of the story in a public reading. A Were chicken is FUNNY.

Except that this story quickly ceased to be mindlessly amusing. The Random Were could not exist without rules, and the more I thought about the rules the more a cohesive Were society began to shape itself – a society consisting of various clans who shift true to their form (the Corvids, the Felids, the folk who turn into dogs or bears or sheep or llamas…), the wild-card Randoms (who were the lowest on the totem pole, for obvious reasons) and another new thing, the New Moon Were, the kindred who shifted at the New Moon and not the Full Moon and who generally found themselves living as bats for the three days and nights of their Turn.

They rose in front of me, these people, these races, this society, and they became as solid and real for me as any (now all too ordinary) human being I happened to cross paths with in the street.

I abandoned the short story. It became clear that “Random” wanted to be a book, a huge book, in concept if not words. It meant creating a whole new world and building it up from its foundations… peopled by characters who quickly became some of the best fictional people I had ever had the privilege to work with.

But quite aside from tackling the big questions this book was also an intensely focused one, dealing with things on a much smaller scale than societal pressures – dealing with family secrets, and very very personal issues. The big picture was the Weres and their society – but within it, etched with a diamond-tipped pen, a sharp storyline emerged, and at the center of it was a girl called Jazz.

Jazz was the youngest in an immigrant family of Randoms who came to a new place looking for safety from persecution in the land in which they had been born. The safety proved to be somewhat illusory, because it was, first of all, bought at the very high price of personal freedom. The Were kindred was just as feared and hated here as they had ever been before except in the new world this was carefully hidden behind “rules” and “laws”.

Laws, of course, have always existed to be broken – and there is a level of both subtle and quite open torment – bullying, discrimination – leveled at the Were from their human peers. Jazz’s older sister Celia, who is central to this story, bore the brunt of this torment, to the point that it led to the fracture at the heart of this family – the silences and the secrets surrounding Celia’s death from an overdose of a Were-specific drug.

“Random” is an exploration of an individual trying to find her place in her world (particularly when her own Random nature leads to a transformation which will leave her in a very uncomfortable position) as well as an exploration of what it means to belong to a family, a clan, a race, a species.

It is, on the surface, a story about Were-kind. It is on a deeper level a story about what it means to be human.

“Random” wanted to be a full length book – but it was obvious very quickly that the story I had begun telling would not fit into a single book. I had a series on my hands.

What The Were Chronicles became is not so much a trilogy as a triptych, with a story arc being approached in three different books by three different POV characters – and in “Wolf”, book 2 of the series, the POV character is Jazz’s brother Mal. Mal is battling his own demons – he is at 17 the oldest unturned Were of his generation, which is destroying him, especially since his younger sister Turns before he does; and also, perhaps far more powerfully, he sees himself as guilty for his sister Celia’s death (because it was he who procured the tablets which she took, which then killed her).

The frustration and the guilt make Mal a dark character, perhaps even an unlikeable one – but it is his strength, his convictions, his ability to grasp a nettle when required and endure the stings which are necessary in order to achieve a particular goal, his growth as a character, his willingness to learn and change and shoulder both love and responsibility when they are both laid upon him, it is all these things that make him unique, and wonderful, and real.

He begins his book, “Wolf” as a whiny and petulant boy. He ends it as a man. This is a coming of age story, and it charts a path which may be thorny but which is always true.

Mal’s friend is the titular character of Book 3, “Shifter”.

Chalky is a young man who has lived by his wits and fended for himself since a very young age. He has acquired self-reliance, and power, and knowledge, and a mastery of his not inconsiderable gifts. He is a talented computer hacker, and he is also, as the book’s title implies, a wild card in the Were universe. 

He can change, as his kind can, into something other than human but for him this is not constrained by the phase of the moon or restricted to three days (neither more nor less). He can Turn into whatever he wants or needs to Turn into, whenever he wants, for however long he wants.

So my characters Jazz in “Random”, Mal in “Wolf”, “Chalky in “Shifter”, and Celia, the eldest sister, who spans all three books – these are the faces of the answer to my “WHO” question.

These are the characters who bear the weight of my story on their shoulders, which sometimes look entirely too fragile to hold up the load. But they are strong, my people. And they have a story to tell of their kind, of their families, of themselves.

Aspiring writers often ask how characters are created – and I have to disappoint them with an answer that, for me, characters aren’t created, they are born. My characters tend to step out of the back of my mind, fully formed, demanding that I sit down and take dictation.

They are real to the point that they will come and sit on my bed at night, kicking the side of the mattress with their heels, and tell me I am “doing it wrong” if they feel that I am. And they are usually right, damn them. To me, the person telling the story is a real companion, someone I know well, someone with whom I can squabble and tussle but whose opinions about their own story I deeply respect and whose suggestions (if I may call them that) I take very seriously indeed.

When it comes to “WHO”, it is very important to me that I know and understand the dramatis personae of my stories. Because without a strong “WHO” everything else can disintegrate fast. Do I begin with character, then? I could answer yes but again every story is different.

Sometimes it’s a situation that the characters are in. Sometimes it’s no more than the whistle of a distant train. Stories go where they will. But in the end, they are anchored by character – by the “WHO” in the equation. Because without a strong answer to that question you have invisible people who never come to life at all, and a story with characters who do not live – for you, the creator, as well as for those who will be reading about their lives when your story is done – is a story which will crumble to ashes at a touch.

Find out more about the Were Chronicles HERE

Why epigraphs?

“Dune” did it to incredible effect. Asimov’s Foundation series did it beautifully. There are other books where this was used to enhance and deepen the worldbuilding.

I am talking about epigraphs, quotes that open chapters or sections of novels, quotes which often come from Science Fiction or Fantasy worlds that do not exist outside the book being read.

The Ages of Mankind

When I wrote “The Secrets of Jin-shei“, I used epigraphs to define the Ages of Mankind, as seen through the eyes of the culture and beliefs of my imagined country of Syai – Liu, Lan, Xat, Qai, Ryu, Pau, and Atu.In that order, they cover emergence (birth and babyhood), growing (childhood), coming of age (becoming adult), reproducing and replacing one’s self (the age of childbearing), the secondary stage of reproducing and replacing one’s self, and growing old (sliding into senescence), the sunset and twilight of one’s life (death), and that existence that bridges the end of the last life and the beginning of a brand new one, a sort of hovering in the waiting room of the gods (the closing of the circle).Jin-shei Ages of Mankind Liu poster

What emerged as the quotes for each section were these delicate ‘Chinese’ poems, fragile and ethereal, almost written by brushwork rather than typed on hard keys on a computer keyboard. They were astonishing to me, who created them, but they had a sturdy reality – despite their tender fragility – which served to anchor my new-made world firmly to a reality which would not otherwise have been possible. There is a power here which is difficult to define, but which is palpable. This would not have been the book it is without the epigraphs which serve as the scaffold on which the entire structure was built.

I did a similar thing with the follow-up to that book, “Embers of Heaven”, where the epigraphs came from various works of reference and literature and liturgy. Imaginary, all. But, again, the quotes serve to anchor the novel into its world, a world where these books existed, where they would have been recognizable and familiar to someone of that world, of that culture. They anchored my own mind in that world, in the way it was thinking and feeling, in the unquestionable reality of its existence.

This is powerful stuff. Even now, rereading the material, years after it was written, I find myself transported straight back into the world of Jin-shei by these quotes.Jin-shei Ages of Mankind Lan poster

The right epigraphs, even if they have been as wholly invented by an author as the novel which they anchor, serve to link the words of fiction to a world which is only a sideways step from our own, as real as that which we see when we look out of our own windows. They serve as windows, also, and they allow the reader of a book to glance directly into the mind of its writer, and understand more completely the fictional realm into which the writer has led them. The epigraphs are the keys to a massive door which open into a place which we may not have ever seen before… but which, because of those imagined yet easily recognized quoted words, we *know*.

I’ve built a series of posters based on those Ages Of mankind, the first two enclosed here. I’ll post the others at another time.

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Are you a god?

If you are a writer, yes.

In a very real sense what you do when you create a fictional world is neither more nor less than being a god of a universe of your own creation.

We writers, we artists, we take the building blocks of the familiar and go on to make something different from them, something rich and strange. There is a train station where all the trains to these places stop, and we all stand there on the platform selling tickets, tickets to OUR worlds, and we smile when someone picks one up and boards a particular train and sits there leaning forward with shining eyes full of anticipation.

The worlds we create can be filled with intricate and painstaking detail – or they can be just hinted at, with the larger picture there for you, the reader, to fill in when you lift your eyes from the words on the page and the ideas blossom in the back of your mind.

Some of the best world-creating moments are almost incidental – like in a fairly silly episode of Doctor Who named “Gridlock” where the premise rests on this ludicrous idea of a traffic jam that has literally lasted for lifetimes… and yet this silliness is lifted into the transcendent.

Right at the end of the episode, the Doctor speaks with passion and pain and longing and regret and nostalgia and the purest love, of his lost home, Gallifrey. The world is built, sketched in a a few powerful words, a couple of incandescent sentences.

I’ve never been to Gallifrey. I can’t have ever been there. It does not exist any longer – the Doctor said it’s been destroyed. But, of course, it never REALLY existed at all, outside the story, outside the Doctor’s own mind and heart and memory.

Gallifrey illustrationAnd yet some part of me thrills to the “burnt orange sky”, and the “mountains that shine when the second sun rises.”

 

(With a little search you can find a video clip of this brief scene online and it’s worth the effort.)

I do this thing, worldbuilding. I take pride in creating worlds that live and breathe.

And sometimes I get rewarded.

“I could almost smell the cold and the freshness of the air and the tremble of the earth,” someone told me the other day, in reference my novel ‘The Secrets of Jin-shei‘.

I took a reader into a world that rose, real, around her as she rolled into the heart of it. One journey into a sense of wonder, validated. There are moments of which entire days are made. This gave me one of those moments.

Professor Tolkien wrote about all this, powerfully:

Although now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons- ’twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we’re made.

Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker. — J.R.R. Tolkien, Tolkien on Fairy-stories

In a LiveJournal essay a few years ago I challenged my readers to:

“Take me to a place you’ve never been and make me homesick for it. Make me yearn for it and believe in it and love it and miss it as though it once belonged to me and I still carry it in my heart.”

It’s easy – well, easier, anyway – to write about a place one has personally known and loved. I have done it talking about the Danube and the way I feel about that river; I’ve done it about the places of my childhood.

But can you be homesick for a place you have never been, can never go? Is it possible for an Earthbound human to be homesick for a planet called Gallifrey, or a wood known as Lothlorien? Is it possible to be homesick for some patch of this our own world which one has never seen or visited?

For instance…

Oh, the moment in which the sun is not yet quite risen, not yet quite ready to pour itself around the shadowed crags in their veils of mist, but the day has started – and the light is pearly and nacred, shifting and shining, and the mists flow and coil around their great standing rocks and islands as though they are saying farewell to a lover. And the sky is lost in a brightening glow and the silhouettes of stones sharpen into individual sharp edges, and trees, and in between all there is the river, and the water is starting to change from darkness to a dull pewter glow which echoes the pre-dawn light to the glitter of sun on water as the first fingers of sunlight touch the ancient river and wake it into day once more, another day.

Already there are boats moving, and men silhouetted against the sky, and the faint shimmery lines of nets being cast into the water where the fish are waking, too, and waiting to offer themselves in the daily act of love and sacrifice that feeds the people of these crags, of this river. And the shadows are black, and the crags are charcoal gray and deep deep green in the faint light, and the water is turning golden and the sky is turning a faint blue, like the delicate shell of a bird’s egg, and soon the sun will come and the water will blaze with glory.

I am talking about a real place, the Li river, Guilin, China. But I’ve never been there. I’ve never seen this, outside of pictures.

River in China photo

I found this photo AFTER I wrote that paragraph above. I went looking for images that matched the view from my mind’s eye. I wasn’t describing the pictures; the pictures were found later to match and illustrate what I had already described…

And yet it’s there in my mind’s eye. And I can make myself homesick for it by letting the image live in my mind.

Perhaps it is possible to take a soul to Gallifrey. And make that soul love a place never seen, impossible to reach, a place that may never have existed outside the mind and heart of a character in a story…

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My first book audiobook – Paper and ebook and voice, oh my.

I am a very visual writer. I sometimes basically close my eyes and just transcribe the movie that’s unfolding before me on the backs of my eyelids. I SEE things.

Some writers dictate their books into a recorder before transcribing them onto the page, and some use software such as Dragon to dictate their books directly onto the screen. But that is not the way I think, not the way I write. I need to see the words dance on the page. Not hear them.

For the same reason, I haven’t really taken to audio books the way others, my husband for example, have. I don’t take in stories JUST by listening to them.

But the times they are a-changing, audiobooks are becoming more popular and I have now taken a step into the future with my first book in audio format, ‘Embers of Heaven‘.
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Embers of Heaven coverI listened to the sample on the Amazon page for the audio book and it’s eerie to hear my own words spoken at me. It’s well done, at least in the sample I heard. (I have to admit that I would probably have chosen a female narrator voice since my main protagonist is a woman and the final section of the book is pretty much a first-person journal-like narrative from her POV.)

My first audiobook. Huh. I feel all grown up now.

You can sample or buy it at Amazon HERE

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Quote of the DayBenjamin Franklin posterIn his own way, he was talking about building a world.

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Words in the Woods

The Rainforest Writers Retreat 2016 is over

My hubby went along this year to see this wondrous place to which I vanish sometimes in the Olympic Peninsula rainforest. The cabin we were in was snug and cozy, with a temperamental gas fireplace heater which switched itself on and off with a loud put-upon WHOOMPF.

The cabin was directly across from the Salmon House Restaurant where we had one scrumptious  meal which included their trademark tempura-battered mushrooms.Lake in the rainforest photo The lake was disconcertingly high with the shoreline trees knee deep in water. The lake grew like a semi-sentient monster, and every time we looked out it was visibly higher, hungrier, reaching. The crescent of shingle beach on the far side which I walked the year before, from which I took some great photos of the Golden Hour on the lake, was quite vanished, under water whose depth I really didn’t want to consider testing even in my knee-high gumboots.

And the reason it was so high and getting higher? Well, it rained. A lot. It rained SOLIDLY from sun-up to sundown most of the time we were there.Rainforest photoDespite that, we did get to visit the world record spruce tree together, and it was as amazing as it always is. I love big old trees and this one I have developed a special affection for. I have to go visit it at least twice during a weekend like this, and lay a hand on its ancient skin, and wish it well.

I gave a talk on World-building to pretty much a full house. Other highlights included the group dinner (at which I got to speak French), the soup-and-grilled-cheese-sandwich lunch provided by Deborah and Chuck (some amazing soups this year. The Moroccan Vegetarian offering was stupendous.), and the Saturday party which produced a bottle of absolutely amazing Sabra chocolate liqueur. In between there were the chats with people, the “what are you working on” connections made in the writing parlor. All that.
But the reason all of us were there were the words in the woods.

Some of us edited, some plotted or planned, and others just wrote furiously.Writers writingI had brought along a vexing timeline that needed nailing down before the next book could begin, and I did that on Thursday, breaking the back of a job over which I had been procrastinating for months at home. I even launched into the writing on that day, which meant the first words of a new novel were written right there next to the window in the lounge of the Salmon House, staring out at the changing sky and the wash of sunlight over damp moss and glittering water.

On Friday I did nothing except sit there and wrestle with words in the woods – and I wrote more on the book, wholly unrelated scenes which will need to be slotted in properly and a very rough draft of it all with entire screeds of what I knew very well were immense infodumps which would need expanding and smoothing down later.
But the words were now there, they had been nailed down, and at least I had the material in black and white with which I could WORK to make it a coherent tale. Between these long snatches of narrative I tweaked my timelines with crabby tiny writing on my large sheets of color-coded background sheets. Someone asked me later having observed me doing this how on earth I could READ anything I wrote in that tiny scribbled hand in the boxes of those tables. The answer of course was simply that sometimes I would have to do it by extrapolation, figuring out what I must have meant to write by reading the context around it.

The word count on the whiteboard grew. Before Friday was over several people had broken five figures and by the time the final word count was read out after a rain-wracked group photo on Sunday morning we had produced 300K words plus change. I myself came in fifth at 20,000 plus by the end of the weekend. It was a good weekend, and much was done, and my story is coming clear in my head.

Following the closing ceremonies on Sunday, we hit the road home, in a cloudburst which continued from Olympia to well past Tacoma while I sat bolt upright with both hands gripping the steering wheel. A dozen rainbows made their appearance to the sides of the road as we drove, glimpsed through the rain as it let up every now and then.

Now it is just a memory of words, the rising lake, and the woods. And the photographs which documented the passing of another Rainforest Writers Retreat.

From here… there’s a new book waiting.

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Quote of the Day
Books change lives posterYou go first.

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