World Builders — Amanda Orneck

My guest today is Amanda Orneck, author of Shadow of the Owl.

Amanda OrneckBorn in Fountain Valley, CA, raised in a small town called Montrose, CA, Amanda has never stayed in one place for long — until now. She currently calls Huntsville, AL, home, where she spends her days writing, gaming, and loving her family to pieces.

Amanda received her Creative Writing degree from the University of Southern California, learning her craft at the feet of David St. John, Aimee Bender and Carol Muske-Dukes. While at USC, she received the Middleton Creative Writing Fellowship for excellence in poetry.

For seven years she honed her writing craft as a video game journalist, writing for GamePro, WoW Insider, GameGeex, and handful of other outlets. In 2014, Amanda left the world of blogging behind to focus on her first love, fiction. Shadow of the Owl is her first novel, and she is currently working on a sequel.

Here now are Amanda’s insights on world building.

What is the appeal of world building to you? How does it compare to the importance of character and plot?

World building enables me to shape an environment I would want to spend time in. When I was younger, crafting fantastic worlds let me escape from a life I found less than inspiring. I spent a lot of time as a child pretending to be a lost, forgotten princess just waiting for her parents to discover her again and return her to her place in the castle in the clouds. Or I pretended to be a unicorn living in a society of unicorns that all had different personalities. In time, the world I played in coalesced into a place with a repeating set of laws and rules, and I think this is where I started really loving the idea of crafting my own worlds and universes.

When I start a new writing project, I always begin with the main character and build from there. (Shadow of the Owl is a special case, as I’ll explain later.) The main character and their motivations shape the sort of world they would live in. Granted, much of the inspiration for my settings comes from my environment. The forests of Shadowhaven are inspired by my love of the Redwood forests in Northern California as well as the tree-lined street I used to walk along on my way home from school. Another one of my projects is set entirely in a cyberpunk futuristic Orange County, California. I imagine that now that I am living here in Alabama, Huntsville will get its own time to shine within my fictional worlds. I’ve learned that the more you draw from realistic locals and concepts when you build your worlds, the more connection you have with them.

I see setting, character, and plot as three interlocking pieces. Once you know who your character is, they could only really exist in one place and time. Likewise, once you understand who they are and where they live, their actions and the conflicts they encounter naturally arise out of that knowledge. I oftentimes would realize that Mylena was writing herself; once I understood who she was and where she came from, I knew exactly what decision she would make when put into a situation. This made it harder when I really wanted elements in the plot or setting that spoke to me as a writer, but I knew she just wouldn’t put up with.

What aspects of the world do you have to figure out before you start a story? What do you allow to unfold as you write?

This is a difficult question, because at least for this first book the process changed over time. Shadow of the Owl started out as a short story when I was a child, and in that it was little more than world building. At the time I had just learned about phalanx combat from my father (a lover of history) and so I imagined a land named Phalanx that was entirely centered around warfare. As I matured and my writing skills developed, this world turned from entirely militaristic to the exact opposite. Taking a cue again from my father, I started building a world entirely of scholars, and these people were in direct opposition to the military faction. I split the world in two and created a romance Swan Princess style that would bind these two peoples together.

Looking back, these roots are all in the Shadowhaven of today, but they are honed and pulled out of the black and white dichotomy that was a result of my lack of world experience. I guess you could say that as I grew up, my skills at crafting a more realistic world also developed.

Shadow of the Owl is a little unusual because it developed over such a long period of time, so the world was very much set before I began the latest incarnation of the story. In the final tale, the themes of military versus the scholastic are still there, they are just grounded and pushed into the past of the novel. Shadowhaven is a land that has already undergone its formative transition, and in the current version of the lore, the conflict wasn’t so much about martial might versus book learning, it was about the struggle for identity in the face of a colonizing threat.

Do you have a technique for keeping track of world building as you go? How do you ensure your material is easily retrievable and easy to modify?

For each universe I create I build a World Bible. This is a central document that keeps a record of all the history and geography of the world, the peoples and their languages, and any pertinent timelines. As I continue writing, I make sure to check back with the World Bible, ensuring all my information is consistent across all works. World Bibles are essential when you have multiple projects going at once, as I tend to do.

Now that I am starting a new writing project (the sequel to Shadow of the Owl), I have to begin with a timeline of events because they are intertwined with a future book in the series and it will become incredibly convoluted if I don’t set things straight before I start planning in earnest.

I do all my planning in Word, Excel, and now Google Docs and Sheets so that I can access them anywhere. If I need to plan spatial relations for a project, I’ll map it out with basic shapes in Photoshop.

How do you avoid excessive world building and balance it with the act of writing the story?

Years ago I read John Garner’s The Art of Fiction, and it really made an impression on me. In particular I took to heart his admonitions against what he called “world builder’s disease,” the foremost victim of this affliction being J.R.R. Tolkien himself.   I have on occasion found myself building languages for my projects (more often just for fun) – I wrote the Dwarven language for Shadow of the Owl for instance – but I have tried throughout the years to make sure that all my effort goes to the service of the story.

If you’re building cultures no one will see, then that’s not writing, that’s crypto-anthropology. It’s fun, but it doesn’t help your story along any. Now, if you know that you’re going to spend a lot of time with a people down the line, or their culture will affect the characters that your reader will spend time with, then it makes sense to flush out their little corner of the world. In the case of the Dwarves, for instance, you don’t meet any in Shadow of the Owl. But their culture begat the peoples that we are directly dealing with in the current timeline of the story, and it is they who wrote the Testament that features as a major plot device. Therefore, it made sense to take some time and hash out the grammar of their language. I have a general idea of what these people are now, and when we meet them later I will have this foundation to build upon. Did I map out their cities and towns and name all their kings and such? No, that would be a waste of a writer’s most precious resource: Time.

How do you balance realism with magic or other world building elements that allow for departure from the ordinary?

For me as a writer (and a reader since that’s ultimately why I write stories, so I can read them), it’s very important to me to feel that all my worlds are grounded in their own physical laws and are reasonably connected to our own. Each of my worlds exist in the same universe, and all have the same originator. This means we can use most of the same physical laws from Earth on these other planets. I see magic as another physical law, just one we don’t have here on this planet. Here we are not biologically connected to the elements the way that the Elves of Shadowhaven are, so it makes sense that they can manipulate those elements in a way we cannot. It’s a scientific anomaly.

Where our world had one origin point, another might have multiple, leading to multiple races of people – as was in the case of the world where Shadow of the Owl takes place. As long as all of these variations are explainable through physical laws, they can be believable for the denizens of Earth.

Be sure to check out Amanda’s fantasy book, Shadow of the Owl, available now on Amazon:

Amanda Orneck CoverBetrayal has come to Shadowhaven, and a power mad wizard has overthrown the kingdom, bent on capturing their store of magic hidden beneath the castle. The royal guard have been sent off on a mysterious mission. Without their trusted warriors to protect them, the kingdom falls overnight. The queen is dead, and the king and princess have fled for their lives. Now only terror reigns over this once peaceful land.

But the royal guard are coming back, and there are rumors that the king and princess aren’t dead, just merely in hiding. Can the captain of the guard find the king and restore the royal family to their place? Can a princess living in secret truly rise up and grab hold of her destiny, or will she hide from who she is if it means the destruction of countless lives? How are the royal family connected to this land, and to the well of power hidden deep beneath Illuminata Castle?

Here is a short excerpt:

She was always sensitive; everyone could tell that about her. But her sensitivity went beyond understanding the feelings of others. She knew things before they happened, could sense the natures of arguments and defuse them even before they began. From the time that Joppa was a little girl, playing in the fields with her brothers, she would always know when the rain was coming or when her mother had cut her hand preparing the noon meal. The twins, Joppa and Abihu, created secret languages and spoke for weeks in their gibberish tongue, felt each other’s pain from great distances, laughed at jokes the other had never spoken aloud. Thus, when her brother finally answered the call of the El, it was the hardest day of her life. That was, until a week and a half ago.

Joppa, ever the daughter of the soil, was out with her older brothers, enjoying the end of a long day, working the grain harvest. The air smelled of rain and dirt and traces of the swamp that bordered their land. It was her custom to spend the time walking back to the house talking to the plants and animals around her, connecting with the lives of the world. There was only so much you could learn listening to human voices. At times, the lesser understood citizens of this world were more intuitive and certainly more interesting conversationalists.

This particular evening, a cold breeze rolled down from the mountains, rustling the trees and bushes as it went, gaining momentum as is sped down from the rocky peaks. The frigid air reached Joppa as she stood in the field, knocking her to her knees with one arctic blast, more like a hammer than a wind. She was wrapped in a cold so profound it choked her, and when she was finally able to catch her breath, she began to scream. A great wailing and howling boiled from within her so totally she lost all sense of its boundaries. She did not stop screaming for two days.

Locked in the dark of her room, supposedly for her safety but mostly for theirs, Joppa paced until the boards did nothing but creak in anticipation of her footsteps. She had grown up in this room, shared it with her brother until the day he traveled to be with the brethren. There were so many memories here they saturated the very walls like whitewash. She remembered her childhood in a series of vibrant flashes, like the stained-glass windows in a cathedral transported here to her room. The more she recalled images, the more fractured they appeared to become, until she wasn’t exactly sure she was seeing anything at all but blocks of bright colors.

One image is of the harvest when she was young. There she is standing in a field of golden grain, the tops of the stalks brushing against her shoulders. She is six. She is watching her father pull the oxen, watching the great beasts snort and toss their massive heads as the whip comes down on their backs. Don’t hurt the cows, Daddy; they’re helping you. She reaches out to pet the plants around her. The heads of grain tickling her palms. She sees a field mouse darting between the rows of stalks and begins to give chase and then…

Another image appears of Abihu receiving his first lesson in the Language of the El, sitting at the feet of the traveling priest, eyes wide and heart aflame. He was eight. His older brothers thought him crazy, and even his father looked at him askew, as if not quite sure what to make of his interest. Only his sister Joppa understood, and sat down by the fire next to him, and held his hand as he listened to the priest tell stories about the Miracles and the Heroes in the Testament…

Then the harvest memory continues. She falls, scraping her knee on a rock’s jagged edge. For a moment, she doesn’t notice, so intent on the mouse is she. The mouse, seeing its advantage, dashes away out of sight. She cries loudly with the great heaving sobs of the young, whimpering as she limps back to the house. But her father is there to give her a plum and plants a kiss on the scrape. He sings her a song her mother used to sing, only his voice is low and scratchy and not nearly as pretty as Mommy’s was. He always knows what to do in order to make her feel better. It is almost as if he heard…

The calling of the El, he felt the pull of the Order long before he even realized he had decided to leave home. The day he told Joppa, she was smiling and sobbing at the same time, and he felt like he was betraying her most of all. But he also knew that she understood, deep down, that this was what he had to do. He could no more deny the call than his father could ignore the fate of the crops on a frost-ridden evening. Hadn’t they since childhood woken in the middle of the night to walk among the crops in the freezing cold with buckets of smoldering coals, smoking the frost away from the precious grain? Wasn’t his heart’s ambition, his drive to serve his fellowman, equally as vital? He was setting out to tend the crops of Shadowhaven, to smoke the frost away from the tender shoots of mankind, yet his father’s eyes were nothing but cold to him. He spoke as if his son were committing some great crime. Couldn’t he understand that…

The room spun, feeling both cavernous and confining by turns. For days, Joppa couldn’t distinguish whose memories she relived. One moment, she was lying by the hearth listening to her brothers talk about the day’s activities, and the next moment threw her into a prayer service filled with faces she did not recognize. Were they her brother’s thoughts or her own? Day and night, she labored with two minds in her one skull, fighting to find her own identity at the same time. By the end of a week, she could no longer tell the difference between the two, but she had given up trying and didn’t care much about it anyway.

Once a day, a member of her family would bring her food. They tried their best to communicate with her. It was as if they came to see if she had finally healed herself of the illness that plagued her. Abihu would have found it amusing that they would expect a sickness to go away without treatment, and his comments to that effect sent her into fits of giggles. Joppa just wanted to be let out into the fresh air to work the fields with her brothers, to feel the damp soil squish between her toes.

This morning, her brother Aebrin brought her a bowl of broth. He was the youngest of her elder brothers, around seventeen, with their father’s dark eyes and brooding expression. Despite his looks, he was, nevertheless, a sensitive person and had stated more than once his objection to seeing his sister made a prisoner in her own room. It was he who had smuggled in the drawing tablet and pencils to her the first day. The tablet had immediate taken flight out the window, but the pencils she used to write her essays and sermons on the walls. She was down to the last one.

“I’ve come to see you, Joppa,” Aebrin announced a little too loudly as he unlocked the door. “Now, don’t throw the chair this time; you know how it angers the other furniture.”

Joppa was sitting in the windowsill, looking out at the fields, her eyes constantly scanning the rows and rows of golden grain. “The cock gets to crow and the boys get to tend the fields, but can Joppa go out to worship in the sunshine? Oh no, the dark is the place for her, even though the days grow short and the light grows more and more skittish. It hardly ever comes to play in Joppa’s window now. No, the light is as skittish as Father. ‘Lock her away,’ he says. ‘The dark is the place for her.’” Then she jumped down from the sill and began scribbling on one of the few blank places on the wall, her penmanship rough and simple like a child’s.

“Now when did you learn to do that? Was you stealin’ books from the Callisters’ farm when we weren’t lookin’?” Aebrin set down the bowl of broth on her little wooden table and took a turn about the room, surveying the hieroglyphic records that wrapped the room from ceiling to floor. “Don’t see no books, though. Strange sickness that struck you, Love. I can hardly understand it.” There was concern in his eyes and in his hands, which twisted nervously, the fingers turning into knots.

“Anything is understandable if you take the time to observe,” Joppa replied icily, snatching her bowl from the table and retreating to the windowsill. “Once, you had little knowledge of what it was like to be a jail keeper. How well you have learned. You’ve turned into an excellent warden. Father must be so proud.” She slurped down her soup loudly as if she hoped to annoy him as much as possible. Aebrin was hurt.

“Aw, come now, Joppa, don’t be like that. We was always pals, wasn’t we? You remember when I would take you on my back and you would ride like I was a pony? Remember that? They was good times we had. I did my best to be good brother to you like Abihu was…” He trailed off awkwardly, rubbing the back of his neck.

“Of course, I remember; are you insane?” The question hung in the air in front of her, and she stared at it, tilting her head like a confused dog. “Scratch that; never mind…” She paused. “I believe this belongs to you,” she said, chucking the bowl at him. He ducked as it flew by his head, and turned, managing to catch the crockery before it exploded against the door.

Aebrin sighed sorrowfully, evidently making the decision that today was not the day to press the matter. He left the room with the bowl, shutting the door behind him and relocking it with a rusty snap. Joppa waited until his footsteps faded down the staircase, and then pulled out a spoon that she had secreted in her hair and put the finishing touches to her masterpiece, a hole in the window frame large enough to stick her hand through. She had been digging at the wood all week when she wasn’t interrupted by visitors or caught by the urge to write. It was rough work, digging with spoons or whatever random implements she happen to steal from her family, and she made sure to make a small prayer of contrition to the El for every theft. The little scrap of blue curtain her mother had tacked to the window when Joppa was a girl had covered the opening whenever someone came to pay her a call. She tossed aside the cloth with little ceremony, and set to her task.

After an hour of steady digging, she broke through. Reached through the opening, Joppa tugged with all her might at the nail that held the window fastened closed. The motion, although strange to most hands, was one Joppa was used to, having performed just such a task numerous times out in the field with her brothers. If she could pull weeds from the ground with all their persistent root systems, with their need to grip the earth for their very life, then she could do this. Which had the greater tenacity, the weed or the nail? Or Joppa?

It was Joppa who won out. To her delight, the nail was shorter than it looked, and the wood of the frame was already beaten by weather and time. After two hours of persistent pulling, she was able to wrench the nail free. She had spent much time at her perch, observing the comings and goings of her family below, and now they were all at evening meal. Before she opened the window, she collected the two items most precious to her in the world: her pencil and a doll Abihu had made for her out of scraps of cloth found around the farm. Then she bounced up to her windowsill, pushed open the one thing keeping her penned up, and rolled down the roof, landing softly on the cool, damp earth. For a moment, she let it squish between her toes, smiling to herself.

Mustn’t be late, oh there is so little time! Told me to be there at dawn, and that was more than a week ago. Though patience be a quality I must cultivate, I cannot abide being held from what I must do. How will I ever explain to Brother Timothy what has happened here? The anger in my father’s eyes when he read the letter, the disdain in his voice. The arguments that followed and the hateful, raging words. Oh, Brother Timothy shall give me the strongest talking to, allow me to read my penance from the Testament, standing, all night long, and then I will surely be given service in the kitchens. How I hate doing dishes! That is if I am allowed to take my place amongst the brethren at all. Patience, Abihu, remember patience. As the Testament says, “One must first make the journey before he knows the end of it.”

North then, and be quick about it. It’s into the swamps I must go, trudging through the water, as the El has bade me do. Don’t mind the muck, or the smells; it’ll be the creatures that you must worry about. Sleep in the trees, they say; sleep in the trees. Once I get through the swamps, Laud’El can be found, nestled before the mountain pass. To the East. Follow the rising of the moon, the letter said. “Its light will show you the way, just as the Light of the El guides our very lives.” If I hurry, I can reach the monastery by dinner tomorrow.

The evening was cool and breezy, as if autumn were entertaining winter for the evening and wished to hear him sing. Joppa ran across the fields, resisting the urge to howl at the moon as it rose on its invisible string, pulled above the eastern horizon. There was too much work to do, though, and she had to travel fast if she wanted to make sure she reached her destination before the conscriptions were closed. What good was a calling, if you heeded it all too late?

If any one of her brothers had been looking out the window just then, they would have seen a dark-haired beauty dashing through the rows of grain, hair unbound and arms flailing, heading northeast towards the Swamps of Keracor.

If you’re intrigued, please go over to Amazon to find out more.

You can also connect with Amanda in the following places:



Twitter: @amandaorneck


Email: amanda [at] orneck [dot] com


About John Robin

John Robin is an epic fantasy writer, professional editor, and lover of imaginary worlds. He write stories about magic and myth, human suffering and the power to rise above it. He loves world building, coffee shops, mathematics, chess, and is an avid author community builder.
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