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Continuing our series of guest posts, Susan K. Hamilton, the author of Shadow King, brings us some important tips to make your world-building great.
Fantasy and fiction author Susan K. Hamilton published her first fantasy novel—DARKSTAR RISING—through Xlibris in 2003. The experience only fueled her interest in writing and in 2016 she was a Top Ten finalist in the Launchpad Manuscript Competition. Her entry—SHADOW KING—will be released later this year from Inkshares, and she is working on a new manuscript tentatively titled THE DEVIL YOU DON’T. An avid horse enthusiast, Susan spends her spare time (when not writing) at the barn and in the saddle. She lives near Boston with her husband and cat.
Five Lessons I’ve Learned About World-Building
When writing fiction, especially when it is some sort of fantasy or science fiction, the world you build is a fundamental and critical part of your story. Your world is the backdrop, and sometimes the bones, for your story. There are many wonderful and terrible ways to create your world. Top-down world building means you work from the broad concepts—politics, religion, cultural social mores—and directs how your characters interact. Bottom-up world building, as you may infer, grows more organically: as your characters evolve, so does their world.
Frequently the two types of world-building can co-exist. You may start with one, and then find there is a need to switch. And you also can vary in how extensive or minimal your word is.
Personally, I have written two novels (that the public currently has or will have access to), as well as three others that are in various states of disarray. Each one of these has required that I build a unique world, and I’ve learned several lessons about world-building through my various efforts, both the successes and the mistakes.
Lesson #1: Don’t let anyone tell you “no”
There isn’t one right way to world-build. You are the all-knowing, merciful (or merciless as the case may be) God or Goddess of your Universe.
It’s your world; build it the way you want.
Don’t let anyone tell you that top-down world building is best or bottom up is best. What works for J.K. Rowling, George R. R. Martin, R.A. Salvatore – or me, for that matter—might not work for you and that’s okay. We all think and work differently; that’s one of the wonderful things about creativity.
Personally, I feel I’m more of a bottom-up world builder. While it might be possible for me to get an idea for a world, if I don’t come up with a character who speaks to me, I don’t end up connecting with the world emotionally and then I get tired of it very quickly. Writing the story and meeting the characters makes me wonder what kind of world I want them to live in, love in, and—yes—often die in. That’s where the fuel for my world-building comes from. So often my world emerges organically and the story unfolds.
But that doesn’t mean I’ve never delved into top-down world building.
I think a great example of my blending of the two can be seen in my first novel, DARKSTAR RISING. As I wrote the first draft, I started to build a world around my main character, Darkstar, adding details as needed so that the world suited the story I wanted to write.
But then I hit a point where I realized Darkstar was really starting to interact with people from other countries and races, and I felt like I didn’t have a solid grasp of who these people were. That was when I switched to more of the top-down system. I took my countries—and the characters who were from there—and put some thought into each. I thought about religion, customs, social mores, how the genders related to each other, and more. I knew I had to define these broader parameters because these things would influence how my characters interacted.
That system worked for me… But remember: Your world. Your method. Own it.
Lesson #2: Your memory isn’t as good as you think it is
When you find those key, critical parts of your world, the ones that are the foundational bricks and interdependencies, for the love of everything good, write them down SOMEWHERE.
I don’t care if you’re totally tech-savvy and know how to build a wiki to keep track of your world (which sounds like a pretty cool option), or if you kick-it old school and use a notebook, or if you’re somewhere in the middle with an Excel spreadsheet. If your story is detailed enough, at some point you’re going to forget something, and you’re going to need to look it up.
Having a system is going to make that so much easier for you.
If you don’t have a system to help you remember, you run the risk of putting conflicting details in your story, and these—even very minor ones—can create a kind of cognitive dissonance in your readers. If this dissonance is significant enough, it will pull your reader out of the flow of your story, and no one wants that.
I’ll confess, I’m not the greatest at writing things down, and when I do, it tends to be a bit of a hodge-podge. In fact, I just went through some of the folder I have for SHADOW KING and made an attempt to organize it into “Older Material,” “Background,” “Drafts,” and then a folder for things pertaining to my publisher. And even with that, it is still pretty disorganized.
I tend to just keep track in a Word doc or Excel sheet where I can keep the things I need to reference about both the world itself as well as the characters’ bona fides. I probably ought to make myself a standard template to use; but that’s been on my “gotta get to it one of these days” list for a long, long time. I’ll be starting work on my next manuscript soon so maybe this is the time!
Oh, and one other thing: back up your files. Seriously. You’ll thank me for that someday.
Lesson #3: Do the autopsy—even if you don’t want to.
If this is the first time you’ve done world-building, you’re going to look back on parts and think, “Sh*t, that didn’t go the way I planned.”
You know what? Even if this is your fifth novel, or tenth, from time to time, you’re still going to ask yourself that very same question. That sentence crosses my mind, and comes out of my mouth, more times than I care to admit.
We’ve all done it. Mistakes are how we learn and how we do things better the next time around. There’s no shame in that, but you need to remember to learn from your mistakes.
Once you’ve completed your story, I highly recommend you do some sort of personal debrief or post-mortem. Think about how you went about not only writing the story but also how you built the world and the characters within it. I bet you think of a few things that bogged you down or sidetracked you.
This is a much harder thing to do than it might first appear. For starters, once you’re done with a story, you want to move onto the next thing whether that is marketing or pitching what you just finished, or starting to write that next great manuscript in your head. Who has time to go back and deconstruct what you just did? We’re burning daylight!
You should. I should. We all should.
We should make the effort to figure out what didn’t go so well and then remember those things so that maybe, just maybe, we can do it a little differently next time. Conversely, if you found something that worked AWESOME, then keep doing it! There is a reason people tell you not to mess with a good thing.
Lesson #4: Don’t just build empty cities
World-building is wonderful, and it’s fun, but a world without characters and emotions and turmoil is nothing more than an elegant ghost town.
Fill your cities, your countries, your planets! Fill them to the brim with love, hate, despair, adoration, revenge, recrimination, passion, lust, bravery, cowardice, insecurity, arrogance, hope, sorrow, joy, betrayal, forgiveness, humor, and sarcasm. Fill them with the wise and the foolish, the smart and the stupid, the seers and the blind.
I mentioned this earlier but I’ve definitely noticed that my method for world-building is inextricably connected with my characters. As the characters grow, so does the world. As the characters grow, they tell me about their hopes and fears, about their childhoods, and those details inform the world I’m creating.
In my current book, SHADOW KING, the very first thing I created was my male lead: Aohdan Collins. Once I knew who he was, the world he would live in started to take shape. This was an interesting world to work with. Because the novel is a dark urban fantasy, the main setting is the city of Boston, so there were certain things that had to be real and concrete, and that I didn’t need to create. What I did need to create was this alternate Boston where Aohdan (who is a Fae) and his companions exist, blending elements of the human realm that we all know with elements of the faerie realm that Aohdan and the others have brought to the world.
And in Aohdan’s story there is plenty of love, lust, ambition, betrayal and revenge. One of the things I found especially interesting was how the faeries and humans interacted in my world, how much prejudice there was (or wasn’t).
Each aspect of the world is enhanced by the emotions that fill it.
Lesson #5: The Devil’s in the Details
This lesson is a crazy, kissing-cousin to #4. When you’re building worlds, you need to fill them with characters and feelings, but you also need to make sure you remember the little stuff. Because the small stuff matters!
Have you built an industrial city? Make sure people get soot on their hands, and have the odor of fuel on their clothes. Is your society agricultural? Include the smell of warm soil and fresh vegetables, of sweaty horses and cow manure. Include the grunt of oxen as the pull the plow and the feel of calloused, work-weary fingers. Do your characters gather at a seedy pub? Include the sour taste of inferior wine and the greasy texture of stew made with gristle and half-spoiled vegetables.
Those are the details that make a world come alive once you’ve built the beautiful bones: What does it feel like, what does it smell like? Are there places where your reader would feel at home? Where they would have a beer with a friend? You don’t have to overload your work with these details, but a few very vivid ones, strategically placed can make your world so much more real to your readers.
In my own work, I tend to focus much more on dialogue than I do on details, and I often need to remind myself to go back and look for opportunities to put these small details in. At one point in SHADOW KING, one of my characters is walking down the sidewalk, and it is winter. At first I didn’t say much about the snow but when I read the scene over, I realized that snow in the city can look a lot different than snow in the country. So, I made sure to add in that the snow was gritty and blackened from dirt, sand, and salt used by the DPW crews. It was only a few words here and there, but in the end I think those details help (plus, they are a good reflection of how this character feels on the inside during that moment of the story).
You’re missing a huge opportunity if you leave these things out.
These are just five lessons I’ve learned as I’ve made my way through my various stories and manuscripts. I’m sure for some of you they’re familiar, for others maybe I sparked a new idea or two. And I’m sure that there are thousands of other lessons out there that we can all benefit from – I’d love to hear more about your lessons in the comments!
Discover Susan’s latest book, Shadow King!
Shadow King was a Top Ten finalist in the 2017 Launchpad Manuscript Competition out of over 1,000 entries from 24 different countries. It will be published by Inkshares through their Quill imprint later in 2017 (anticipating fall, but specific release date is TBD).
Connect with Susan:
Inkshares: www.inkshares.com/books/shadow-king (if you register on the site, you can follow both her as an author and Shadow King as a book)
I have been working as an editor with self-publishing authors for several years now. A year and a half ago my work load grew so big I had to expand and form a team. Since that point I’ve become a senior editor, and recently, thanks to connecting with some great talent my editing company is expanding into a publishing services company with a publishing division.
As time goes on, my duties for my company mean I get to spend less and less time involved directly in editing, but I am still heavily involved in the editing process as I work on a more “meta” level through training apprentices and directing the team on editorial standards. But still, in my heart, I am an editor, and a large part of that is because in my heart of hearts, I’m a writer.
One thing that has been on my to-do list for more than a year now has been to write a manual on editing. Such a document was meant to be internal, something in-depth for my editors to consult, since (to the best of my knowledge) no such book exists. Imagine that: a book called “How to Edit a Book”. I sure wish I’d picked that up when I decided I wanted to try my hand as an editor. I suspect it’s never been done before because the subject is so nuanced and one editor’s opinion cannot account for the body of editing practices as a whole. You can ask any editor and most will tell you the same thing: in order to learn how to edit, you need to read a lot of books, consult various manuals and read up on writing craft and techniques, and get practice by apprenticing under a more senior editor.
I agree with all three parts of that, and indeed my path to being an editor involved following each one, but nonetheless, I have a to-do list item to cross off, and limited time with which to do so. Given that I devote a set period of time every week to preparing an article for the writers who I like to help, it made sense to me that, instead of being overly ambitious and writing a book on editing, or being insular and writing manuals for my team only, why not cover all the bases.
How to edit a book: a comprehensive guide via blog series
Starting next week, I’m going to start a blogging thread that will be ongoing, a “book in progress” of sorts. Though book is the wrong way to think about it because in my mind I don’t see there being an exact beginning or end or reason to read the things as a whole.
For the last several weeks, as I’ve explored topics on writing, I have been building a content directory (and will continue to build it based on the red slippers that fall out of each post), the equivalent of a table of contents. I’ve also been asking the editors on my team to send me topic requests and I’ve been organizing it in the master list accordingly.
Nothing is going to change from what you’re used to seeing. Every Friday I will write something inspiring relating to writing, publishing, or the writer’s lifestyle. However, periodically I will add another installment to this series on how to edit a book.
Based on the feedback and requests I receive, I may write a post weekly just on this topic, in addition to my Friday post. This would mean one day of the week is devoted to the editing series and you can look forward to the next installment in your morning inbox every day that week.
My goal is that, long-term, both my editors, and writers / other aspiring editors will have a great reference on editing and how it works. The good thing about doing it this way is it doesn’t mean adding an extra duty to my mountain of duties. (Apologies to any Lan Mandragoran fans for butchering his eloquent expression.)
Stay tuned for the first in the series: proofreading, what it is, how it works, and techniques to do it effectively for yourself or someone else.
If you have any topic requests please leave them below! I can write endlessly on topics and will organize my topic directory accordingly, but my goal with this series is to be as comprehensive as possible, so why not make this a community endeavor.
I am pleased to welcome Laura E. Thompson to the blog to contribute another great article on fantasy world-building. Laura has recently published her first book, the Burden of Destiny, which you can discover in more detail below.
Laura E. Thompson grew up in a small town on an island that sits in the middle of Lake Champlain in Vermont. She has been writing since the young age of seven and has been an avid reader for longer than that. Her first novel was written and completed at the age of sixteen while taking a creative writing class. Laura started writing the Elven Quest Series in 2007. She had not written for pleasure in a long time and one day the characters from The Burden of Destiny entered her mind and wouldn’t leave. She had no choice but to sit down and write their story, now she’s so excited to share them with the world. Laura also co-wrote the published ethical theory model entitled Key Factors in Making Ethical Decisions Model, a chapter in the textbook: Ethical Decision Making for the 21st Century Counselor (Counseling and Professional Identity) by Donna S. Sheperis and Stacy L. Henning.
Fantasy World Building: Hidden meanings & Messages
One reason that I love fantasy is the fact that it is a brand new world where anything can happen. If a writer wants to remove the laws of gravity and have the characters float everywhere, they can do that. If they want people to have reflective fur that blinds their opponents, they can do that. I could go on and on, anything goes really. But what does this mean for a writer? What kind of things should you include in your own world when writing fantasy?
Personally, I think that no world would be realistic without some rules.
There should be laws of nature that make it clear that there are limits to what characters can and cannot do. For example, with “the Force” on Star Wars, it can guide Luke, strengthen his gut instincts and allow him to use his mind to move objects, like when he loses his lightsaber and can use it to pull it back to him. However, he cannot use the Force to heal himself. When Vader cuts off his hand, he cannot grow a new hand using the Force. Does this make sense? Rules. There needs to be clear lines in the sand as to what the characters can accomplish to make your world believable.
It also helps the reader engage with your story and find it more believable if you can create a backstory for your world, a rich history of how things came to be the way that they are. This allows the readers to imagine the way the world was before.
It is important, while creating a history for your world, to consider connections. Each character must have some personal history, somewhere that they came from or things they’ve done. How can you, as the writer, connect these personal stories and histories to the current story or the main character? Weaving in ties between characters creates a nice platform for struggles, disagreements, and ways for characters to overcome obstacles or barriers. It creates a tapestry and allows the readers to connect the dots.
The Marvel MCU movies are masters at doing this. They can tie Thor and Loki, who came from another world, into conflicts with the characters on Earth. These ties allow for great action scenes, like Loki bringing his army of Chitauri through a portal to battle in New York City. At the end of every Marvel movie, they foreshadow into the next movie and create another tie. This has allowed their franchise to keep going and they do it wonderfully.
Writers have done this too, not just to create more books but also to enrich the novel itself. One of my favorite epic fantasies is the Pellinor Series by Alison Croggon. In her world of bards, magic and barding schools, there is so much history, it is insane. She talks about legends of the bards, songs and poems that they sung before they had written language, conflicts between the light and the dark even before the land was forged. It is so deep and rich that it sucks you into this world and makes you want to be a part of it. It made me wonder the first time that I read it if Croggon was writing about a real, ancient world or society that had died off. I was shocked when I realized that she, like Tolkien, Lucas, Lewis, Jordan, Pullman, Rowling and many others, had completely imagined the whole thing.
While creating your history you can subtly insert hidden messages about your own views on things like politics, religion, power, education, etc. Even simple things like the names of characters or places can have hidden meanings. For example, while writing my novel The Burden of Destiny: Elven Quest, in the beginning I was using my imagination to create names of characters and places. After a while though, I started getting bored with trying to think of new names and I decided that I wanted the names to mean something. In my second book, for example, all of the new characters that are introduced have names that have a meaning that describes who they are and what makes them special.
One of the first new characters you meet in the second book is an Elf named Cailean. He is the leader of the Wood Elves guard and he has the ability to transform himself into a wolf. I created Cailean’s name by researching name meanings and found one that I thought fit. According to one site, the Scottish meaning of the name Cailean is “triumphant in battle or war.” According to another site, the older Gaelic version of this name meant, “Young dog, whelp or wolf”. I felt like this was a good fit to describe Cailean’s character. I did the same with every other character I introduced as well. They all mean something that is connected to who they are. I know that I am not the first to do this. Rowling for example did this with Remus Lupin. He is just a wizard, you think at first, you find out however that he is also a werewolf and Remus is an old mythological character that was raised by wolves and Lupin is a form of the Latin Lupus, which means wolf. Again, she does this with many of her characters, Draco Malfoy, aka, bad faith and snake/dragon. What is neat about doing this is that your fans might not notice it at first, but it is something that if they look deeper into your story and research and find these meanings, like the Harry Potter fans have done, then they love you even more and they respect your time and dedication to your writing.
In terms of hiding your own views on things, this has to be done subtlety and in line with the story. My story has a lot to do with different races of people who had a history of wounding each other. So within my story I weave many conversations about working together, learning to accept differences and how important cohesiveness is. I do the same with discussing the natural elements, Earth, air, fire, and water and how important it is to protect and care for them. This is my way of discussing global warming and the destruction of our Earth today. I think that we should all be working together despite our differences with the common goal of protecting the Earth, which we all share.
Back to my girl Rowling, she did a great job of weaving in ties to our history. If you look at the structure of Harry Potter it is very much a reflection of World War II and the Nazi’s. Voldemort of course being Hitler, characters like Dolores Umbridge and Bellatrix Lestrange enjoy “punishing” the “Mudbloods” because they are not “pure” wizard blood. This is very much like the Nazi’s that felt the same about the Jews, gays, and pretty much everyone else who were considered “enemies of the state.” There is a scene when Bellatrix uses her wand to cut into Hermione’s arm the word “Mudblood” this is similar to when the Nazi’s used a metal stamp to “tattoo” a serial number into their prisoner’s skin in the concentration camps.
Another good example of inputting the writers view into a fantasy story was C.S. Lewis and the Narnia tales. Lewis was a Christian and he admitted that his novels were what he called “an imaginative welcome to the Christian faith.” He uses symbolism for his faith throughout the books including the obvious Aslan as Jesus. Aslan is stabbed by the White Witch, killed, he was dead as a doornail, but then, the table cracks and he comes back to life. Hello…remind you of a certain savior that was nailed to the cross? It should, that’s what Lewis was going for. There are other instances too that are a direct correlation in his story to the Bible, but I am running out of space dear readers, so I would suggest researching on your own if you are interested in learning more. 😉
I hope you enjoyed my discussion of creating your fantasy world and weaving in some hidden meanings and ties. If you would like to learn more about me, my novel, or my thoughts on writing and also life, you can visit me on my blog Elemental Words, the link is listed below.
Enjoy creating your own worlds, dear readers, and as I say on my blog: remember, writing=happiness ;).
Connect with Laura E. Thompson: