I’ve been a guest on this podcast twice ere now, and I am absolutely delighted to be joining Marshall Ryan Maresca and Rowenna Miller on a regular basis. Twice-monthly, we’ll be exploring the bones of fantasy worlds — historical, cultural, geological, grammatical, all of the things a writer can use to give life and veracity to their world. We have some wonderful topics lined up for the show’s second season, and I cannot wait to delve into them with my fabulous co-hosts and some amazing guests.
If you’ve followed me for a while, you’ve probably gleaned that this is the sort of stuff I absolutely live for. Sometimes I feel like I should’ve gone into RPG design, because I so adore exactly this sort of work. I’ve certainly done plenty of it for the Aven Cycle! (And members of my Patreon get to see that on a weekly basis, since all the microfiction I release draws from the paratextual material that doesn’t fit into the books). What I’ve loved about WfM as a listener, and what I can’t wait to probe more as a co-host, is the challenge to presumptions: really interrogating why things are the way they are, and not just taking our current lived reality or our perceptions of historical reality and lumping them into an invented world without due consideration. It’s already affected the way I’m thinking about my secondworld WIPs, and I’m eager to keep pushing myself to think harder and deeper about the constructs I’m creating.
So! Whether you’re a writer looking for some prompts to help you flesh out your world or a reader hungry for insights into how we wild authorial folk do the things we do, hit that subscribe button on your favorite podcast platform!
So I’m almost done with this round of revisions. I’m at the point where I’m doing the penultimate read-through, which will hopefully make sure I catch any continuity errors created by my changes thus far and that I fill in any major omissions from the points raised by the editorial letter. Then the final read-through before sending things back to Sarah will be on hard copy, which is the best way for me to catch the tiny typo-like things. (Or places where I “pull a Cass” — leaving a sentence unfinished because I got distracted partway through writing it).
This round has involved a lot of filling in the edges of my worldbuilding. Sarah had a lot of questions about the world of Aven, about the political and religious systems, the economy, social classes, etc. The social history, really, the demographics and dynamics at play. These are things that I have swirling about in my head when I’m writing, but I hadn’t really pinned them down in specifics yet — because I hadn’t had to in the same way I’d had to be specific about, say, geography. It’s the sort of stuff I love — and the sort of stuff I actually sort of fear writing down, because too much of it can turn an otherwise sensible chapter into an encyclopedia entry. (I say this as someone who read the encyclopedia for fun as a child, so it doesn’t always occur to me that other people might not find that sort of chapter interesting. It’s something I have to check myself on — or be checked on by others).
But sometimes I just plain need that encyclopedia entry, at least for my own head. In order to find the places where I can drop a casual reference, hint at a larger world, I need to take it out of the blurry background noise of my brain and shape it into something concrete. And frequently, I find I need to do that sort of brainstorming by hand.
Thing is, once I get started, it’s a little hard to stop. Sometimes, that means I end up with notebooks stuffed with lists and diagrams. Sometimes, it means I end up with a 13X300 spreadsheet detailing every single magically-gifted citizen of a fictional incarnation of the city of Rome.
Just, y’know. Hypothetically.
So, as a quick update and a teaser, I thought I’d share what a few of those world-building documents have looked like over the past couple of weeks. Plus, a chance for y’all to see just how bad my handwriting is.
Math is really not my strong suit, but pinning the numbers down on a page helps.
This was keeping track of something I was doing in the spreadsheets.
Kate Elliott is writing an excellent series of World-Building Wednesdays, and today’s post, The Flowering of an Image, focuses on the germination of a world — what kernel it is that turns into a place in which stories can live.
Elliott says that her world-building most often begins with an image which then spurs the characters and the story. The two things then grow together, the world informing the characters and plot as much as the characters and plot define the world. That symbiosis is something I discover in my own writing as well. Something I decide about the world will trigger an event, and some need the characters have will make me flesh out a bit of the world.
Sometimes, though, I can fall a bit into a world-building pit. It’s not so much in the need to outline or write out an encyclopedia — though in some cases I’d happily do so — but I end up exploring the world by letting characters wander through it. Interesting to me, but not something that really advances the narrative. Part of editing is finding ways to inject the details of the world into the action. I do keep lists, though, of important facts. For Aven it’s been a lot of geographical concerns — what do different provinces produce, what sort of people live on which of the Seven Hills, and so forth — and a lot about the magic. I also have some historical notes about where my AU diverges from the reality of Roman history.
For me, though, the story tends to begin not with an image, but with a statement — sometimes of narrative, but far more often, of dialogue or introspection. An image will often follow, but I tend to hear a character’s voice before I clearly see them or the world around them. The words they want to use, the cadence, the rhetoric, those are the things that start to spin a character for me.
So, I thought it might be fun to trawl through a few of my projects — both those still in-progress, those set aside and perhaps to be revived someday — and see if I could find and identify those starting phrases. Wonderfully, I managed to unearth a document of scraps that I started back in 2009. Some of those scraps turned into larger stories. Some have been finished, and some haven’t — and one of them is on is way to publication! But it provided me with some good examples of what seeds I start with:
“Oh, you are such a poor liar. You haven’t the talent for it, so you may as well not try. Come now.” She pouted, quite prettily. “I’m your sister. Who can you tell, if not me?”
“I could no more leave this city than leave you, Mari,” he said. “To do one would be to do the other, and to do either…” He shook his head. “Unthinkable.”
“How many times did you fling yourself into danger without a second goddamn thought?”
“He does love me,” she commented, more to herself than to Kara.
“In his way,” Kara supplied.
“Not even that,” Arhena said, twisting a few golden strands around her finger. “I think he really does. He’s just… not one to show it in the usual fashion.”
“That girl’s kept her heart locked up a good long while now. I think it might finally be ready for some fresh air.”
“And you, Highness, are the daughter of a desert witch masquerading as a princess. But I’ve never held that against you.”
It wasn’t, after all, a nice thing to hear about yourself, to know that you’d gone from a well-mannered, perfectly-coiffed debutante to being little better than a mad dog in want of a leash.
‘That’s the trouble with putting down roots,’ she thought. Her fingers itched as she stepped over towards where the mare was tethered and unwound the reins from the fence. ‘They do make it harder to fly…’
I’m realizing, looking at all of those, how many of them are moments of great passion — so many of my stories, no matter the genre, do feature a romance between two strong, stubborn people — or how many of them are the lead heroine wrestling with herself in some way.
There are worse places, I think, to start a story.