MYC: Two Approaches to World Building for Science Fiction

Master Your Craft, writing craft, world buildingWelcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series with Two Approaches to Fantasy World Building. Today we continue with world building by looking at two approaches to science fiction world building.

After reading Julie and Gabby’s post last week, we actually considered not writing this post. Really, what’s the difference between world building for fantasy and science fiction? Call the world you’ve created a newly terra-formed planet in the Andromeda galaxy, drop the magic system and add in some photon blasters and your good, right?

We found that while the basic building blocks for your world remain the same, our approaches to world building were different. We started in different places and built our characters differently, so it seemed worthwhile to do the post after all. Here’s a quick look at two approaches to science fiction world building.

Rebecca: I start with a technology concept. It’s not necessarily a huge concept; I don’t write space opera. Rather, I like to explore small changes in the technology available to a world, and the large ramifications they might have. Like the iPhone. I’m dating myself here, but do you remember when it came out? I have a vivid recollection of a friend showing me his phone and tipping the screen sideways and seeing the image reorient itself and thinking “Wow!” But I didn’t think I’d ever spend $600 on a phone. I certainly didn’t think that phones like that would dominate the market. That everyone would use them, not just for calls and texts but to manage their calendars and for Internet searches and navigation and games and entertainment. This is what I find interesting…the unexpected consequences.

After thinking through the tech, how it would work and most importantly what trouble it world building, writing craft, master your craftwould cause, I start thinking about characters. What types of characters would be the most interested in trying a revolutionary and possibly dangerous technology? I love writing geeks and entrepreneurs! Who would be nervous about the tech, perhaps wanted outlawed? Who might steal the tech for themselves and what would they do with it? Suddenly I’ve got the two sides of a conflict and can start thinking about plot points.

Halli: I didn’t start my sci-fi novel with the idea of writing in this genre. I had an idea for the plot – boy has a big, huge problem – and planned to write it as a middle grade contemporary story. It wasn’t until I developed this boy, and he showed me how much he loved science, that I realized the only way he would solve his problem was with some kind of crazy tech. So I let my imagination run wild.

I researched everything from emotions to matter, the brain to blasters. Then I took it to the next level, the fiction part of science fiction, to achieve the results my character wanted. Of course nothing works right the first time, which led to bigger and badder tech and inventions. The novel is contemporary, but the ideas, tech, and inventions still had an impact on the belief and political systems, and ideas and cultures of the world my characters lived in.

Rebecca, Julie, Gabby and I all have different processes for world building. There are as many different ways to create a fictitious world as there are Star Wars fans. And whichever one you choose, however detailed your world ends up, enjoy the opportunity to create an original part of the universe!

Tune in next week when we will recap all thirteen posts on prewriting. The week after, we’ll dive into drafting your manuscript!

HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. You can find her on Twitter.

 

Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes young adult science fiction with heroines much braver than she is and middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.

MYC – Two Approaches to Fantasy World Building

  Master Your CraftWelcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series with Welcome to World Building. Today we continue to examine the humongous topic by looking at two approaches to fantasy world building.

When Gabby & I started talking fantasy world building, we figured out quickly that, while we agreed that character is central to world building, we approached the actual process very differently. Instead of trying to come up with *the* way to build fantasy worlds, we decided to share our different approaches in hopes that you can use some of our techniques in your own writing.

Julie’s Approach:

The first thing I do after I get an idea for a new world is read every comp title I can get my hands on so I know what the tropes are and can either avoid or subvert. Our Writing Cross-Culturally workshop round-up is a mini-course in how to avoid harmful tropes in world building. But I also check the genre tropes section of the TV Tropes Wiki to make sure I’m going into my world building with a good idea of what’s already out there.

Then comes the fun part–brainstorming. I brainstorm both how my story is different from what’s out there AND how it’s the same. This step often happens as part of my messy synopsis so that I can get feedback on the world from my amazing critique partners.

“Every story has already been told. Once you’ve read Anna Karenina, Bleak House, The Sound and the Fury, To Kill a Mockingbird and A Wrinkle in Time, you understand that there is really no reason to ever write another novel. Except that each writer brings to the table, if she will let herself, something that no one else in the history of time has ever had. –Anna Quindlen, Commencement Speech; Mount Holyoke College, May 23, 1999

Then I dive in to primary research. For a mythology-based world (which many of mine are), I read the original epic poems or stories looking for themes. I often take something from the original that I find sexist or racist or otherwise irritating and subvert it in my story. China Mieville’s brilliant UnLunDun is a great example of subverting the typical Chosen One trope, for example, because the Chosen One doesn’t actually end up saving the day.

I also love fantasy world building that includes unexpected mash-ups. Finnish epic poems meet Star Wars. Ugly Duckling plus dragons. Goonies plus sea turtles. Building a world at the intersection of two things you love can give lots of room for creativity and help you bring that something special that Anna Quindlen is talking about in the quote above.

But that’s all pre-writing. What does the actual writing look like? You already learned last week that the ten-page info dump is a no-no and that it’s best to weave in details during scenes with forward action. Probably my most-used world building comment to my clients is: BE SPECIFIC. A platter of meat on the table is so much less evocative then roasted hell-boar basted with clarion berry jam. Even better if the main character’s father was gravely injured on a hell-boar hunt years ago or if the seeking out the clarion berries is a right-of-passage that the main character hopes to participate in soon. Then the details become a way to build character, foreshadowing what is to come, recall backstory, and, ultimately, make the world you’re creating on the page come to life.

The Girl From Everywhere has amazing fantasy world buildingSome recent books that have really vivid fantasy world building include A Curious Tale of the In-Between by Lauren DeStefano, The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, and Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo.

 

Gabby’s Approach:

I always do character interviews and development first. Then I do a sort-of world interview. At this point, I may have a general plot outline, but I know that as I develop details of the world, it will impact plot and character, and vice versa. There’s triangulation that happens between the three that takes on a life of its own. To build the world, I have a series of questions, some of which I’ve come up with myself, and others which I’ve gleaned from friends, the internet, and workshops.

I have a strong background in environmental science, so I always include details about the weather, the geology, the seasons, and the flora and fauna in my world building. These have impacts on the lives of my characters. For example, I might explore the variety of predators in this world. Is it a creature that might attack my character? Do they travel in packs, like coyotes? Will my character have lingering anxiety that it might eat her cat? I explore food sources. Are there plants that are harvested, or animals that are farmed–what are they and how are they made available?

I go for LOTS of details–everything from the culture and general beliefs or taboos of a world, to the ecosystem, to the clothing and housing. I’d say I might use about a third of this information in the book. If you’re not sure why these sorts of details might be key ingredients, just look at the role of the poisonous berries in The Hunger Games. Whether or not a character would know those berries isn’t just about the world–it’s about the way the character interacts with their world.

To me there are some details that are more emotional and evocative than others, because they’re universal heart-lines. In my mind those are housing, food, and religion/mythology. These three areas inform all of the best, and most emotional parts of our lives. We share food with family (unless we don’t have one, and then we eat alone). We remember our mother’s cooking, the smells and tastes of our childhood. We believe what we’re taught, or we strain against it. A well built world exerts pressure on a character, and can exert opposing pressure in their relationships. A rainy day, with its scent of wet earth, and heavy sky might mean, and evoke, something very different for me, than it does for you.

I research as needed, as I go. Examples might be anything really: tie-ins to an existing creature or mythology, symptoms of respiratory disease, how to cook a hell-boar (nod to Julie), or I may want to know about the dragonfly life cycle to adapt it for a creature of my own. I don’t really start to think about tropes, cliches or sensitivity reading until I’ve got something pretty developed, unless I notice something that gives me pause along the way.

In terms of implementation of the world, I second Julie. SPECIFICS. Really what this is about is that you don’t find the emotional, evocative ties that bind in broad strokes. Painting the world (relaying all the work you just did) feels–well, it doesn’t feel at all. What touches the reader and ties them to your character, and to your world, is the relationship between that character and the world–it’s in the MICRO. It’s in the details. It’s in the freezing cold wind that your character is going to have to go out in to get their sister. It’s in the smell of that dessert, made with special berries that only come out once a year. It’s in the sad lonely song, sung by a man with no ear for music, that everyone knows, but hasn’t heard in years because it was outlawed. The rocks under your feet impact you. They bruise your skin. All of these things are about the world, as interpreted by the character.

Three Times Lucky has amazing fantasy world building Some books that do fantasy world building  really well are: Three Times Lucky, A Year Down Yonder, Icefall, Howl’s Moving Castle, Savvy, and Scorpio Races.

Tune in next week when we will explore world building in science fiction.

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MYC: Welcome to World Building

  Master Your Craft Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series with Setting as a Character. For the next few weeks, we will be talking about the humongous and intimidating topic of world building. Today we start by looking at the topic as a whole and how it can be applied to contemporary stories.

At it’s most basic, world building is fun, the height of creativity. Close your eyes and imagine a society as strange and decadent as Panem, the capital in The Hunger Games, or place as real and (to some) familiar as a middle school basketball court. Let your imagination run wild, or keep things simple and true. What will serve as the best backdrop for your characters and action?

  • When is the story happening? Past, present, or future?
  • Where? Small-town, America or a galaxy far, far away?
  • What resources do your characters have at their disposal? Money? Magic? Advanced weapons? Or nothing but their own muscle and ingenuity?
  • What do your characters believe and how does that square or contrast with the beliefs of the society around them?

So why is world-building intimidating? Because if you allow yourself to dream up something spectacular and then take the ten or twenty pages to outline your masterpiece of a world, every critique partner will tell you to delete it and get your plot moving. The hard thing about creating a world isn’t dreaming it up, it’s dropping bits and pieces everywhere in your story, not serving it up in one big chunk.

Let’s look at building the world for a story. There are so many potential areas to consider,  it’s helpful to have a checklist:

  • Geography– environment, terrain, weather, rural/urban setting, natural resources
  • Politics– types/roles of governments, stability, power, laws
  • Society– population, city/town size, diversity, gender/family roles, education, language, architecture, naming conventions
  • Economics– finances, socioeconomic status, cost of living, unemployment, import/export
  • Belief Systems– religion, spirituality, practices, freedom, tolerance
  • Ideas/Cultures– values, dress, arts, heroes, communication, leisure time
  • Technology– types, availability, usage

So how can you avoid the ten-page info-dump? Here are a few hints about slipping your world into the story.

  • Character’s actions
  • Social context
  • Physical descriptions
  • Language/Emotions
  • Names
  • Sensory descriptions – smells, sounds, texture
  • Dialogue

Let’s look, again, at The Hunger Games.

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
From The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

In the first paragraph of the book, we learn that Katniss’s family is poor (bare mattress), and we’ll know by the end of the second page that her whole district is. We learn that Prim is important to Katniss. We don’t know what the reaping is, but we know it’s bad and will keep reading to find out more. The trick that Suzanne Collins pulls off so well, is to keep the action moving while you pull the reader about your world. To show the world it in everything the characters see, feel and think.

It is easy to pick out the world building bits in fantasy, science fiction and historical fiction, but what about contemporary stories? On one hand, writers of contemporaries get it easy. The world of their story is the world of the reader, so it’s all out there. That allows some short cuts. On the other hand, ours is a big world. Where does this story take place within it?

Let’s look at the first page of The Crossover by Kwame Alexander.

Dribbling

At the top of the key, I’m
MOVING & GROOVING,
POPping and ROCKING
Why you BUMPING?
Why you LOCKING?
Man, take this THUMPING.
Be careful though,
‘cause now I’m CRUNKing
CrissCROSSING,
FLOSSING
flipping
and my dipping will leave you
S
L
I
P
P
I
N
on the floor, while I
SWOOP
 in
to the finish with a fierce finger roll…
Straight in the hole:
Swoooooooooooosh.
from The Crossover by Kwame Alexander*

The constant movement, slang and trash talk sets the world quickly. A sports game. Did you guess we were on a basketball court before the swoosh? In this world, the young player knows he’s good and wants his opponent to know it too. You may not know much about the character yet, but I bet you’re not imagining this gym is in some fancy prep school. This world building is all done while he’s taking the ball to the net.

Tune in next week when we will explore world building in fantasy. You can also find more information on world building here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q4nVDoojTrs
http://nkjemisin.com/2015/08/worldbuilding-101
http://io9.gizmodo.com/7-deadly-sins-of-worldbuilding-998817537

*Apologies to Mr. Alexander. I could not get the formatting of his words nearly as cool as it is in print. See the published novel for the full effect!

HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. You can find her on Twitter.

 

Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure and young adult science fiction with heroines much braver than she is. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.

 

 

MYC: Setting as a Character

Master Your Craft

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series on research with Notes from a Time Traveler  This week we are talking about setting, but not just as a background for your character. We’re going to look at setting as a character in itself.Master Your CraftWe move through our day going from place to place. The house, the car, the office, we drive down the street, and stop at the grocery store. But as we move through each location, we usually don’t take note of things specific to each, such as the chip bag peeking out from the pile of dirty clothes on the floor of your son’s room, the number of cars versus SUVs on the roads, or the coffee ring stains on your desk. We see places and the objects in them, but, in most cases, they quickly fade from our minds.

As writers, is that what we want for our stories? Places readers hardly notice because every school is the same two-story brick building, and every classroom has four dirty off-white walls and twenty-five desks? Of course that is fine for some settings, especially ones your characters visit once or twice. And because we are still in the early stages of writing our novel, settings may be just that: a house, school, or deserted island called Lain Yu where our characters go, do something then leave. But for more frequented locations, I’m going to give you a different option. And even in the early stages of drafting, it’s not too soon to think about it.

What if settings were like characters with their own smells, tastes, sounds, sights, and textures, all capable of invoking feelings and memories in others? And if you look at settings that way…

How does a setting impact your characters, the decisions they make, and how they interact with other people and places they come in contact with?

Let’s look at some examples from my works-in-progress:

Mel walks into her science classroom. The smell of alcohol from yesterday’s dissecting project lingers in the air. A few kids fan papers in front of their noses, but Mel barely notices because her best friends are two sweaty teenage boys. She glances at the whiteboard, sees the topic “Genes,” her chest tightens and she collapses into her chair. Why? Because Mel is deaf and relies partly on hearing aides, but mostly on lip-reading to get her through class. The topic “Genes” will do doubt include long complicated words like ribonucleic acid and deoxyribonucleic acid. Those words are almost impossible to pronounce and definitely impossible to lip-read.

Here’s another example:

Most kids don’t mind taking the school bus home. It’s like a magic carpet transporting them from boring classrooms to home where video game systems are waiting. But for Troy who has Tourette syndrome and OCD, and a compulsion to count his steps then touch the floor after every ten, there’s no where to hide from laughing and finger-pointing classmates and the slick slime-covered floor that will end up on his own fingers.

Looking at these examples, how are the settings going to effect the character’s thoughts, behaviors, interactions with others, and even dialogue? Would Mel feel differently if she wasn’t deaf or if she walked into a math class instead of science? Another way to look at this is to imagine setting as a friend or foe.

Another reason to look at setting as a character is that it allows you to see it as much more than it’s everyday common function. A graveyard can become home, a tight space under the stairs can be a sanctuary, and a school can be a bully. And as your characters change and grow throughout the story, the setting can too.

Remember, not all places in your story need to be as detailed. Sometimes a house is just a house.

But if you decide settings in your story need a little more detail, the best resources I found are the Rural and Urban Setting Thesauruses from One Stop for Writers. These books describe over two hundred places ranging from a child’s bedroom to a police station to a rodeo. They have notes on all five senses along with tips, resources, and examples.

So how can we incorporate this into our novels? Look at your work-in-progress and use the chart below to capture details about the setting.

The Setting Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

You can also check out the Winged Pen’s posts: Urban Thesaurus and Rural Thesaurus.

Now that you have an idea on how and why to make setting a character, I’m going to leave you with an exercise. It’s not homework, I won’t be grading it, but consider giving it a try during free writing time.

Think about your childhood bedroom. Write about it for fifteen minutes and include all five senses. How did it look, sound, smell, taste, and feel(texture)? Now write how it made you feel (emotions).

I would love if you shared your writing in the comments!

Subscribe to The Winged Pen and never miss a post, including our monthly #FourOn400 writing contest for middle grade and young adult. Click to SUBSCRIBE!

HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. You can find her on Twitter.

 

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Writing Historical Fiction, or, Notes from a Time Traveler

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series with an introductory post on research. This week, we’ll share our thoughts on digging into historical research.

For years I was haunted by a dream of a young woman walking through long grass. I couldn’t see her face, but I could hear her breathing hard, because she wore a corset and the hem of her brocade dress was damp and heavy. She carried a letter in her hand as she made her way toward a small building, a kind of folly, to read in private. The Belvedere, VersaillesThis person didn’t fit into the book I was working on at the time. At all! But then last fall, I happened to read about the invention of hot-air balloons and a real-life event in which a Parisian girl saved a balloon pilot from injury. This happened right before the French Revolution, which made me think about Versailles and its gardens and court dresses and then I knew: my protagonist would be the tough city girl who stopped the balloon from crashing—and fell in love with its pilot—and  she would be the girl with the letter, ruining her expensive dress as she strode through the gardens of Versailles.

My current project, Enchantée, is a YA historical fantasy, which means (at least to me) that it’s rooted in historical fact and touched by magic. The magic I get to invent, but the details of life in the 1780s—the settings, historical events, clothes, food, economy, transportation and more—I need to research. And all of that research is in pursuit of one thing: to make my readers feel that they are THERE, that they’ve traveled back in time and space.

But HOW?

When I started, I knew a bit about the eighteenth century from my grad school days, but not much. I’d listened to Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette. I’d visited Paris, a long time ago. I’d seen period films set in the 1780s. For me, this was enough to begin, to rough out a story arc. Then I starting researching. Then I wrote. Then I researched again, this time with more focus because I had a better idea of what I needed to know. And then I wrote more. And so on and so on.

Research, I’ve discovered, is a spiral process: you can’t possibly know what you need to know at the beginning, so inevitably you’ll go back to the source many times. Knowing this has helped me deal with the inevitable overwhelm that comes with trying to get a grasp on a historical moment.

I’ve read more about the period than will fit in my book; in fact, what shows up in the novel is only the tip of the iceberg. Will readers care about the difficulty of producing hydrogen gas for balloons? I highly doubt it! But understanding it added another layer of authenticity to the story and helped me see the challenges my balloonist would face, which in turn sparked changes in the plot. This wasn’t something I’d expected to happen, but I was thrilled when it did.

Yet as K.M. Weiland stresses in her great post on writing historical fiction, even more than getting the facts right (which you need to do), what counts is creating a feeling of authenticity.

But how do you do that? Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Tiny details can be time machines. Learning that the pomade used in hairstyles in the 1780s reeked after a week gave me a powerful sensory detail. Learning that Versailles crawled with rats and that anyone could wander its halls helped me see the glittering palace with fresh eyes—and devise a way in for my heroine.

Read what interests you. Try biographies, social and political histories. You don’t have to start with the most complex one, either, unless it speaks to you. Know that you’ll probably come back to whatever you read, so be sure to take notes and save links to websites. (I do this by importing links into Scrivener.)

Use historians’ bibliographies to track down Books to Read, September 2015documents from the period, many of which are available online or included in books. These primary sources are what historians use to write their accounts; they include letters and diaries, or things like a first-hand account of a balloon flight in 1783, and they are gold. Not only because they contain the priceless details you want, but they will be written in the language of a person from your period.

Which brings me to voice. Reading eighteenth-century letters as well as novels, histories, and poems helped me shape my protagonist’s voice. I wanted her voice and thoughts to feel contemporary enough for YA readers of today, but also to feel authentic to the time. I’ll admit that for me, balancing these two issues is an ongoing struggle.

If your chosen period isn’t too far in the past, you may find maps, old guidebooks, or travel writing useful. Even present-day guidebooks can contain helpful information, especially if aspects of your setting still exist—as they did for me in Paris and at Versailles.

Indulge in period films, your pen at the ready (next to the popcorn, of course). Surround yourself with photos of the places you’re writing about. Follow pinners on Pinterest who are fascinated by your setting and your time period and pin like crazy. Track down museums that feature objects important to your book—in my case, the Bata shoe museum and the Murtog D. Guiness Collection of Automata.

Seek out passionate experts of your period. They’re not all academics. I follow people on Pinterest who pin eighteenth-century clothes; their pins function as a virtual wardrobe when I’m dressing my characters. If, for example, you want to set your novel during the American Civil War, you might find a re-enactor’s blog useful. I was captivated by the work of a Finnish blogger who sews 18th century dresses. I also stumbled across an online agency that rents weapons to acting companies; one of its owners provided the best description I’d found of how to fight with a French small sword. Many of these experts will welcome questions—they love to share their passion.

The most important thing I’ve learned is both humbling and inspiring. As Newberry winner Karen Hesse, author of Out of the Dust wrote, “Even after researching for a full year, after reading thousands of pages of material, both primary and secondary sources, I could never recreate an historical period with absolute confidence. I needed to make so many leaps of faith and asked the reader to leap with me.”

So yes, you need to research, but time travel happens through imagination—something you already have. Happy writing!

Looking to read some MG and YA historical fiction? Here are a few of my favorites:

Elizabeth Wein, Code Name Verity
Lois Lowry, Number the Stars
Laurie Halse Anderson, Chains
MT Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing
Elizabeth George Speare, The Witch of Blackbird Pond

You can read interviews with MT Anderson here and Laurie Halse Anderson here; Emma Darwin takes you through the process in her book.

Do you have any tips on writing historical fiction? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Next week, Halli will be here to talk about setting as a character.

GITA TRELEASE writes YA fantasy. She was born in Sweden and has lived in France, Italy, and the United States. In her former life as a college professor, she taught classes on fairy tales, monsters, and Victorian criminals. Along with her artist husband, teenage son, and Maine Coon, Gita divides her time between a boarding school in Massachusetts and the wild Maine coast. Her current project takes place during the French Revolution: hot-air balloons and gambling, decadence and dark magic. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.

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