I’m honored today to welcome my long-time favorite fantasy author, Dennis L. McKiernan, to my blog today. I’ve always loved the world of Mithgar and thought it would be great to hear from the one who created it through following many red slippers, to many rich stories.
Dennis L. McKiernan is a bestselling science fiction and fantasy writer. He is the author of some 25 novels and an equal number of short stories. His books include the Mithgar series, the Faery series, the Black Foxes duology, and a mystery or two. He lives with his wife in Tucson, Arizona.
Here now are Dennis’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?
The world itself in any book ought to be considered another living and breathing character, especially in a Science Fiction or Fantasy realm. Even in contemporary stories set in this 2015 world, the tone and tempo of a story can rely upon the world as we know it, but in a fantasy story, the world should have fantasy elements (deep forests, mystical pools, strange creatures, and so forth). In an SF tale, here, too, the settings should reflect aspects of the future, or the sciences, or the dystopia of an after-disaster tale. So the world itself is a large “setting” in which the story is told, and within that setting are many lesser settings, each informing the reader of the place in which they find themselves.
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?
There are two or three schools of thought on how much of the world should a writer should know about the world before beginning the adventure: 1) get everything down, from the monetary system to the social order to the geography, politics, standards of living, and so on and so forth until literally everything about the world is known. 2) Know a lot about the world before you begin, and then start the adventure. 3) Know only as much as you need to start the tale, and the rest will come to you as you write.
The problem with 1) is that getting caught up in designing the world is all the writer does, and new things will occur that continue the design, but the adventure never begins. The problem with 3) is that many things will be needed that a bit of forethought would have handled, and the writer at times will find himself/herself with a dilemma that leads to revisions (sometimes drastic ones) in earlier chapters, or with the entire premise of the tale.
I tend to be a person who follows track 2) above. With a bit of upfront thinking and sketching and so on, I never seem to get myself in a pickle. As new things occur, I make certain that they fit in the worldview, and continue from there.
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?
I keep detailed glossaries and maps and sketches of settings.
How do you avoid excessive world building and balance it with the act of writing the story?
See above. I’ll give you an example: I had a map of a portion of Mithgar. It was hand drawn in ink. In a subsequent story, I needed to journey eastward off the known map. So I added a blank sheet out to the east, and as I wrote the story, I sketched in more detail as my protagonists went. I also added detail out farther than they had yet gone, putting barriers in the way that they would have to struggle with (mountains, rivers, forests, and the like). I figured what the seasonal changes would mean (snow, ice, heat, cold, fallen leaves, forest sounds, migrating birds and animals). I didn’t spend a lot of time on this, since I knew most of it already from living here on earth, but I did change it up a bit to account for my fantasy world’s beings.
As another example, while heretofore most of my stories involved journeys across land masses, I added a splendid Elvenship, and made a journey by sea. Here, I used a Time-Life resource of books called something like Wooden Ships. In particular, I chose the Clipper Ships book of that series. In the front and back cover were maps of planet Earth showing the prevailing winds and prevailing currents of the oceans of this world. It was a fairly trivial matter to figure out what the prevailing winds and currents would be in Mithgar.
What do you enjoy the most about world building?
Inventing new settings and adding elements to the world.
Have you learned tips on world building from other authors in your genre? If so, what are they?
Nope. In general reading of myths and fables and other stories, or watching various movies and TV shows, and seeing great depictions of fantasy artises, an amalgam of things forms in one’s worldview. So, in that sense, I have learned from everyone I ever read, listened to, viewed, or watched.
Describe your world building method. Do you have forms that you fill in? How do you organize your notes? Do you use a wiki or some other software?
I use Microsoft Word to keep my glossaries. I use my handmade maps and sketches to keep track of places andsuch. (BTW, you can see some of my maps in Stolen Crown, where every chapter starts out with a map of the area of interest for that particular chapter).
Do you use diagrams? If so, what kind? What about charts, schematics, or other visual representations of your world beyond textual material?
I am an engineer. Of course I keep charts of things. Some are really simple: for example, I get one of those month-at-a-time calendars, and use them as the calendar for my characters’ events. I jot down some cryptic note that tells me what the major characters did on that day, and what was going on in the world of the story. I have the Elvenship sailing, and so I keep track of distance and time and whether they were trapped in doldrums or whether they were making incredible time and distance because they were driven by roaring-forties winds. Things like that just come naturally to my mind and hand.
How has your world building process evolved over time?
Not much, though as I write yet another book in my ever-growing series, the world is so familiar that I need to simply fall back on what has already been done for many things, though there are new settings that need a bit of sketching, such as, say, a Necromancer’s tower.
How do you balance realism with magic or other world building elements that allow for departure from the ordinary?
Everything that isn’t a “black box” (some magical artifact, an FTL drive, or other McGuffin) has to behave as it does in real life. For example, horses are not trucks, so they have to be treated and cared for as real horses are, unless a particular horse is a black box (magical, like, say, Pegasus). Windmills have to work like windmills, unless a particular windmill is a black box (this magical windmill needs no wind to turn the vanes, and the wheat it grinds comes out as loaves of bread). And so on for everything in the world: if it’s a black box, then magic-babble or technobabble will explain it away, but everything else has to conform to the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, etc., as we know them to be.
What are some fundamental rules to world building you would say are important to every writer in the fantasy genre?
Consider what the geography does to the world, to the wind patterns, the rain patterns, the ocean currents, to the day/night patterns, etc. Do these mountains produce a rain shadow, where the shadow side becomes a desert? Does the wind off the ocean carry moisture, and the uplift of land causes lush growth? How do the landmasses shape migration of people, animals, birds. Polar regions can be dry and cold. I think there is no such thing as a “jungle world,” or an “ocean world,” simply because of polar regions and so on. Unless, of course, the world itself is a black box. And don’t forget to include the Moon or moons, and how they effect and affect tides and cultural patterns. And for heaven’s sake, do some research on eclipses, solar and lunar (a mistake often made in movies/TV is showing an eclipse on our world occurring in minutes, rather than in the hours they really take).
The thing to remember is to ask the questions that have to do with the effect of geography upon the world.
Are you modifying your world building process? Do you have any particular things you’d like to improve on?
I am comfortable with my worlds. So, my methodology seems to be holding up rather well.
In your opinion, what is it that makes a believable and immersive world for a fantasy story?
Character interactions, providing a set of believable events, realistic causes and effects, engaging the readers’ emotions, etc. To answer this question would require a whole course in effective writing, so I give up, now.
How do you deal with contradictions in your story that require large changes to your world? Have you run into this kind of difficult situation and if so how did you resolve it?
Well, Hell, I’ve never run into this. But if I had, I would have done whatever was necessary to fix things. For example, I happen to know that our Moon provides a stabilizing force in the axial tilt of our planet. Without the Moon we would wobble and the axial tilt would have us having wild swings in wind and weather patterns. So, a planet without a moon would be in some trouble. If I had written a tale of a place with no moon, and then I discovered that I needed one, I’d make whatever wholesale changes were necessary. If I wanted to leave it without a moon, then the world would have cycles of strange/violent weather that would be centuries long per cycle. It’s just easier to pop a moon up in the sky.
Describe your world and some of the considerations behind it that you feel give your stories a solid sense of realism:
Mithgar is medieval. No gunpowder. Populated by Elves, Dwarves, Humans, Warrows, Fox Riders, Hidden Ones, Foul Folk, limited magic. Magic is done at the expense of spending life force, and the good guys use their own life force whereas the bad guys use stolen life force. The Gods struggle against one another.
Faery is a traditional fairytale world, and the Faery series is a retelling of popular fairy tales. The world itself, though has magical boundaries around each realm, and as one crosses a boundary, you might not know where you’ll end up. So, travel is quite dangerous at times, for one might be dropped off the edge of a cliff, or end up in the middle of an ocean.
There are Witches, Faries, Elves, Gnomes, etc, all the traditional folk of fairy tales.
The Black Fox series has our contemporary world (the real world) as well as a virtual reality world run by an artificial intelligence. People must be prepared in this world, and when they enter the virtual world, they actually become the character that they wanted to be, and have no memory of their real self. It’s as if you become your favorite superhero, or D&D character, or whatever other virtual reality personage you have chosen.
What tips do you have for aspiring fantasy writers on how to create a solid, believable world?
Again, I pass on this question, for that would take an entire course in fantasy writing. The only thing that I would even suggest is to read, read, read, and analyze, analyze, analyze. Why did I think that book was so great/terrible/meh? Why was that paragraph/chapter/sentence was so splendid/bad/blah?
To find out more about Dennis L. McKiernan and his books, either click here to visit his website or pop over to Amazon or Barnes and Noble and check this author out (hardcovers, paperbacks, eBooks. Some have said that Dragondoom is the finest fantasy ever written, and I can attest to that!