Wold Building: Organic Vs. Thematic

When you read about building a world from the great fantasy and scifi writers of the modern age almost all of them agree that the best way to go about it is to begin with the foundational premises and carry them out to their logical conclusions. Are there aliens to think about? What planet do they come from, what’s the environment like, what kind of culture results? How are they physically similar or different from humans and how does that change the ways they think and act? Does your fantasy world have magic? How does it work and how will that change the culture and politics?

This approach likely goes back to the legendary Tolkien, a linguist who developed the languages of his world as he wrote stories about that world. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, which I call the organic approach. Starting with the big picture and figuring out what the backdrop to your world is like is a great way to give your story consistency, predictability and easily understandable stakes. At the same time, it’s not the only way to build a world, nor is it necessarily the most effective way.

The other form of world building is thematic – when you have a particular idea you want to break down it may make more sense to build the world around those ideas first and foremost, then do your best to create rational consequences for those ideas later. Is your story about gambling? Create a massive underground society revolving around gambling in place of more traditional commerce. Is it about the grinding nature of competition? Create a world where war is replaced with a kind of game and explore the detrimental effects on society.

In my own writing I’ve tinkered with both kinds of world building. Years ago I wrote “Emergency Surface” as a quick entry into a much larger meditation on the future that had coherent rules, a three century long timeline, concrete rule for technology from faster than light travel to microcomputing and more. I haven’t written too much in that world beyond further explorations of the New Ice Age where I started but I’ve always had plans. (We’ll see what comes of them.) One thing that did and still does excite me so much about that future timeline is all the different kinds of stories I can tell around different major events in the world and different technologies available there.

On the other hand, when I sat down to write Schrodinger’s Book I was interested in telling a story about memory, how we tell stories and the real meaning of the victors writing the history books. From the mostly abandoned and empty Earth to the mass manipulation of books for the purposes of controlling culture and memory, to the suspiciously articulate enlisted spacers who had to explain the integrity of books to the now clueless Earthlings, every aspect of the Triad Worlds and UNIGOV Earth was chosen first to cater to these thematic elements and then refined to facilitate the coherence and verisimilitude of the world. Information manipulation on the scale presented in the story is, in my opinion, impossible even given the cultural and technological realities of the time. But my desire was less to explain how such things came to be and more look at what part of our nature gives rise to the impulses that create such things.

Interestingly enough, Martian Scriptures, the sequel to Schrodinger’s Book that I’m currently working on, contains a blending of these two takes on world building. I was interested in examining how patterning ourselves and our societies on story (a very popular notion these days) is an alluring and dangerous concept. As I looked at how I might go about tackling these themes I realized there were elements introduced in Schrodinger’s Book that played heavily towards this theme, most notably the idea that the Triad Worlds had an offshoot that was deliberately trying to emulate the ideas of Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek. From there it was a very short walk to a basic conflict that led to most of the story arc falling in to place. At the same time, I had to organically extend the ideas introduced already to make sure that Martian Scriptures didn’t come off as inconsistent with its precursor and introduce new ideas to allow for the clear mechanical execution of some of the more “futuristic” portions of the story.

I don’t have any problem with organic world building, but having done quite a bit of thematic world building in the past few years I’ve found that there are some clear advantages of the one versus the other. Organic world building can often become a trap. People spend so much time building their world they lose interesting in telling stories about it, much like the overly fastidious dad in The Lego Movie. On the other hand thematic world building can leave blind spots all over your story and you can easily write yourself into a corner because you weren’t thinking about the consequences of your thematically appropriate decisions.

On the other hand, thematic world building is fast and powerful so long as you avoid the pitfalls. It makes the audience feel they’ve really experienced your theme to its fullest extent when executed on properly. Well done organic world building drags the audience into your world and lets them experience being there in a way no other story really can.

The real question is what your story needs. Many adventure stories rely heavily on organic world building to keep fun and interesting obstacles in front of the protagonists and to keep an endless supply of new and exciting locales on hand. On the other hand, thematic world building often gives the best setting for deep examinations of characters and motive or cultures and consequences.

Even if you’re not creating an entire world for your story you still have to populate the environment around your characters with businesses, subcultures and objects from the real world around you. Learning to world build will give you a better feel for what these choices mean for your characters and story. And an oft-overlooked part of that is the balance between the organic outgrowths of your choices and the thematic implications of them. So no matter what kind of writer you are, consider your world building from both sides of the coin.

World Building – Ignorant vs. Incorrect

Recently I was giving feedback to another author on a book and I wound up talking about a concept that I’ve found myself drawing heavily from in my own writing career but I find used very little in most fantasy and scifi fiction I read, namely being incorrect. I presume this to be an outgrowth of wiki culture, where we can get huge amounts of information on any subject with a quick Internet search. Rarely questioned is whether that information is correct, which ironically is what underpins one of my favorite kinds of world building. Consider.

You have two characters come from different (probably but not necessarily fictional) cultures living right next to each other. The reader needs exposition on how these cultures function to understand the story going forward. So you have each character ignorant of the other culture. By asking each other questions they can give each other the necessary exposition and help the reader understand what is going on. This kind of thing is surprisingly common, especially in urban fantasy stories, but the degrees to which it comes off as believable… varies. Ignorance is a fine way to justify exposition as a way to push exposition. But it’s not the only one and it’s not the most interesting or informative way to do it. Sometimes its better to have characters be incorrect in what they “know” about others.

Wikipedia isn’t always right, after all.

Take for example Raiders from the Rings, an old and not exactly outstanding scifi novel that introduced this idea to me when I was very young. We join a Spacer who is part of a great raiding party landing on Earth. He fulfills his goal, to kidnap a woman and abscond into space with her, but finds he’s also accidentally gotten a stow away, her brother who tried to rescue her and got taken along for the ride. The three reach a truce after some shenanigans and spend some time getting to know each other.

The Spacer is surprised to learn from the Earthmen that they expect to be used in evil Spacer genetic experiments that will produce more mutants for the Spacer hordes waiting to reconquer Earth. He laughs and tells them there is a mutant horde, of course – cosmic radiation will do that to a people. All Spacers are mutants, the radiation has damaged the X chromosomes of the men so that they function as Y chromosomes in the reproductive process, ensuring that all Spacer children are male and forcing them to constantly kidnap women from Earth to sustain their population. But they’re not monsters, just normal people. This reinforces his opinion that Earthmen are too stupid to survive in space, they just won’t be able to handle it. That impression is demolished the next day when he gets home to Mars and finds every building there destroyed by a vengeful fleet from Earth, launched at the exact moment the Spacer raiding fleet passed the point in Earth’s gravity well that made it impossible to turn back.

This sequence in the book establishes a lot of things about the world – why our hero was abducting girls at the beginning, what the big hurdle he has to overcome is and – most importantly – what the status quo of the two factions is. It also tells think of each other and in doing that also tells us something important about the weaknesses of each culture. Earth culture is founded on fear – they’ve spent centuries watching the skies wondering when the next raid will come and now they’re fighting back, not in a controlled, planned way like a military would but with the panicked flailing of a terrified child. Spacer culture is suffused with arrogance – they’ve always held technical and tactical advantages over Earth so large they can no longer conceive of effective resistance. 

And the best part about this exposition is that the second half of it is shown, rather than told. We see it in the way they think of each other, what actions those thoughts provoke and the way those assumptions are proven false.

There’s room for, “What is this thing about your culture?” questions in a story, of course, but it’s passive world building. You’re handing your audience facts about the world. Ignorance creates more active world building, where characters actively grapple with cultures and facts as they confront them and the characters find their faulty understandings of the world disproven. This allows for not only exposition but character exploration and growth. Not every bit of exposition calls for this level of depth but there are definitely times when it gives a more thorough and rich understanding of the world, as in Raiders from the Rings.

Another perk of handling exposition this way is that it leaves some uncertainty in the reader’s mind. After all, if one character was wrong about the truth of a situation how do we know the next person to exposit on the subject isn’t just as wrong? Of course you don’t want to keep yanking your readers around that much but if you can create that sliver of uncertainty you’re much more likely to hold your audience’s attention than you are without it. Certainty kills tension, which is at the heart of good narratives. Too many world builders are intent on telling their readers the way the world is. However good exposition is like exploring – much of the fun is in the gradual discovery of things and seeing how pieces fit together as the story progresses. Characters with incorrect understandings of the world add a spice to that which keeps your exposition interesting. Exposition tends to be bland to begin with, don’t take out any more of the flavor than you have to.

In all there’s no one size fits all approach to world building, but that’s what makes the steady increase of straightforward ignorance as the key to exposition such a negative part of modern storytelling. Whenever possible, check to see of changing things up might add a needed dimension to your exposition. Start by letting your characters be misinformed, rather than just uniformed.

Cool Things: Dobrenica

There’s a genre called the “Ruritanian romance” that exists in fiction (and it’s one that you’re probably never going to see discussed in Genrely Speaking) where most or all of the story takes place in a small, fictional Germanic/Slavic nation somewhere in Eastern Europe. The genre is named for the country central to the first such story, Ruritania. Today, Ruritanian romances are a lot like Regency romances in that they tend to take place in a specific era and place, although Ruritanias are usually somewhere around the turn of the twentieth century and set in Europe where as Regency stories tend to be set in the beginning of the eighteen hundreds and set in England. Originally, Rurtanias were supposed to be exist in the same era the story was written, but that’s a convention that’s fallen out of style. The genre has also been spoofed mercilessly, and also kind of fallen out of style.

Enter author Sherwood Smith.

I have no idea how much study, world building, language lessons and rewriting Smith’s Dobrenica series entailed, but the result is quite impressive. Dobrenica is the quintessential Ruritania, a small, isolated and kind of backward nation in the mountains of Eastern Europe. It has a semi-monarchy, landed nobility, quaint little ways, gorgeous old manor houses complete with ghosts, keeps guarding passes full of vampires –

Wait, what?

Okay, okay, Coronets and Steel, the first novel Smith has written about Dobrenica, does not throw it’s readers for a loop like that. It’s not another Out of the Dark. From moment one we get the impression that our story is taking place more in an Uberwald kind of a world than a Ruritania kind of a world. Kim Murray, our protagonist, is more of clean cut college kid than a paranormal investigator, but fact is she can see weird things. When she travels from California to Europe to try and track down her mother’s genealogy she stumbles across ghosts all over the place. No surprise, Kim’s seen ghosts since she was a child and Europe’s got some ancient cities where a lot of people have died. Kim tries to ignore them, for the most part.

She can’t ignore the fact that she’s being mistaken for someone else. At first she doesn’t notice it. The ladies in that one dress shop were weirdly polite but she didn’t think much of it. It’s not until Kim meets a fantastically attractive man, who then politely drugs and abducts her, that she starts to think something might be amiss. Turns out that she’s a lookalike for the woman who’s engaged to Dobrenica’s crown prince! Said prince’s fiancee has gone AWOL, causing a lot of problems, and Kim is going to have to explain who she is and possibly play body double for her doppelganger. As for why all this is possible… well, remember how Kim was in Europe researching her genealogy?

As an employee of the largest public English language genealogy reference library in the world, I know that most people have nobility in their family tree somewhere. It just so happens that Kim’s is much more recent than most.

This adds another twist to Kim’s situation. Since she represents a noble line thought lost to Dobrenica sixty-plus years ago, her turning up adds a whole new layer of problems to an already complicated political landscape. Before things have played out, she’ll have to figure out where she stands in the midst of it all, how badly she’s in love with another woman’s affianced and what the heck is up with all this talk of the country occasionally disappearing off the map from time to time.

Not getting stabbed, shot or bitten by fiends of the night in the process is optional.

Again, the world building in the Dobrenica novels is quite impressive. The history of this fictitious country is clearly well developed and we get glimpses of it throughout, and the pastiche of real world languages the Dobrenicans speak reads much like you’d expect, rather than like a made up language. Just as importantly, while the elements of the weird are present throughout the story they don’t take it over, at least not until the third book which is markedly different from the first two. There’s no fourth, so I can’t say if that’s the beginning of a pattern or just a brief aberration.

Finally, the Dobrenican novels are romances in the modern sense of girl meets boy, accuses him of drugging her and then starts to warm up to him. I have no idea what the that says about our culture today, other than maybe it hasn’t changed much since the days courting involved clubs and caves (or tangle guns and spaceships). But Smith handles her characters well and is careful to keep them from becoming one-dimensional. With all the intrigue, hauntings and other stuff going on in Dobrenica how could they afford to pass on those other two dimensions?

While the plots of these books are solid and the characters keep your interest, the real reason you should read the Dobrenica novels is for Dobrenica. The country itself feels real, like you could hop a train out of Vienna and be there in a matter of hours. It’s an impressive bit of writing and worth experiencing even if world building isn’t your thing. If it is, then the Dobrenica novels are among the top ten books you need to read. They will not be a waste of your time.

World Building: A Project Sumter Timeline

I thought I’d throw together another little world building post for you, this time focusing on Project Sumter and it’s history. If you’ve ready any of the fiction here you’ve probably gathered that Project Sumter is a government organization dedicated to enforcing the law among people with unique talents (read: superpowers) and keeping their existence secret. It’s also the largest legitimate employer of talents in the United States.

You probably also know that many of the rules that govern the Project are extrapolated from the rules governing a man known as Corporal Sumter, who was given his strange title and most of his assignments by no less than President Abraham Lincoln.

Believe it or not, Project Sumter was originally about Corporal Sumter, not Double Helix.

So there’s actually a very detailed timeline of what happened between Lincoln’s election in the mid-1800s and the Enchanter’s first arson in the early 21st century. I still hope to use a lot of that material, but here’s a semi-redacted version of that timeline (and honestly, what else would you expect from Project Sumter?)

April 12 – 13, 1861 – Fort Sumter is besieged and surrenders to Confederate forces.

April 15, 1861 – President Lincoln declares a state of insurrection.

June 22, 1861 – A cadet at West Point lifts a cannon that had fallen on another student in a training accident. He not only lifts it off the other cadet but slings it over one shoulder and moves it across a courtyard, a feat of strength that cannot be explained by simple adrenaline. This cadet gains something of a reputation.

July 8, 1861 – Word of the Herculean cadet makes it’s way back to President Lincoln, who sends for the man, later be known as Corporal Sumter.

July 10, 1861 – After meeting the cadet in person, the President decides to terminate his commission in the Army. He fears that allowing a superman to lead in a war that is at least partly about the respective status of races will send the wrong message. Corporal Sumter reluctantly agrees and all records of his enrollment at West Point are destroyed.

January 10, 1862 – A Confederate officer at the Battle of Mill Creek is observed being shot several times without apparent injury. When a cannonball strikes him and falls off like a dead fly Union soldiers become unusually concerned.

January 12-20, 1862 – Rumors of an invincible Confederate officer begin to circulated through the Union’s Western Theater of Operations.

February 3, 1862 – A letter reaches Corporal Sumter, sent by a friend from West Point, telling him of the strange officer on the other side of the lines. The Corporal in turn writes to President Lincoln, detailing the situation and asking if he can still serve the Union in some way. The President will later claim the letter was never received. The truth of this claim remains in dispute.

March 3, 1862 – With no answer from Washington, Corporal Sumter departs for the West on his own.

-Further details on the period between 1862 and 1865 are classified Top Secret. Further detail only available to those cleared for codewords CORPORAL SUMTER, SHENANDOAH, FOG OF WAR, BUSHWACKER and SHERMAN’S BANE, talent indexing numbers 0001 – 0005.-

May 18, 1865 – President Johnson thanks Corporal Sumter for his service and signs his discharge papers, ending his official service in the Union Army.

1865-1940 – The family of Corporal Sumter, Shenandoah and Sherman’s Bane remain under quiet surveillance by those members of the U.S. Government who are entitled to know what they are capable of.

Summer, 1940 – British intelligence reports intercepting communications regarding people with strange abilities, particularly power over ‘frost’. These reports are corroborated by soldiers returning from Dunkirk.

August 2, 1941 – The newly formed Office of Strategic Services, combining previously received reports from British Intelligence with documents scattered through Army records, concludes that precedents already exist for how the Army should deal with potential talented soldiers should the US be drawn into the new World War.

August 18, 1941 – The OSS sets out a proposal, later approved by the War Department, that creates the basic administrative apparatus of Project Sumter and recommends a total of six individuals who are believed to have talent that the Project could attempt to recruit.

October 2, 1941 – Daniel Wells, grandson of Shenandoah, is located by Project Sumter and reveals that his grandfather’s talent has not been passed down, although all the research Shenandoah did on his abilities has. The Project offers Wells a supervisory position and he accepts.

October 5, 1941 – Agent Wells approaches the granddaughter of Sherman’s Bane and offers her a position with the Project. She is given the codename Clear Skies and later becomes a member of the Women’s Army Corps.

October 20, 1941 – Corporal Sumter’s great grandson is located but declines to participate. No other members of the family demonstrate the original’s incredible abilities and Project agents return to Washington empty handed.

November 12, 1941 – Project Sumter’s headquarters is officially established in Charleston, South Carolina.

December 7, 1941 – The Imperial Japanese Navy launches a surprise attack on the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

December 8, 1941 – Sumter’s great grandson arrives in Washington D.C. with a changed heart, seeking admission to Project Sumter. Within eight hours he is in Charleston, being sworn into Project Sumter.

December 23, 1941 – U.S. forces on Wake Island surrender to the Japanese after successfully resisting invasion for a little over two weeks. A long debate at Sumter HQ comes to an end and Corporal Sumter’s successor is named for a recently lost stronghold, just like his ancestor. Sergeant Wake’s file is officially opened in the Project records.

-Further details on the period between 1941 and 1946 are classified Top Secret. Further detail only available to those cleared for codewords CLEAR SKIES, CHIEF STILLWATER, SERGEANT WAKE, SAINT ELMO, COLD SPIKE and JACK FROST, talent indexing numbers 0006 – 0009, 0036 and 0044.-

September 22, 1947 – With the War Department recently dissolved Project Sumter’s administrative fate is left up in the air. After much debate, with the newly minted CIA pushing hard to be given control, the Project is instead made an independent body. No longer a branch of the military, it begins the long process of working out new long term goals and identity.

September 25, 1947 – A fundamental shift in Project structure occurs when the three seniormost talents, Clear Skies, Chief Stillwater and Sergeant Wake, decide to retire now that there is no pressing military need for their services.

-You actually need clearance to know what clearances you need to read about the Cold War. Seriously.-

April 18, 2004 – Double Helix, talent indexing number 3729, is taken on a field stress test by Senior Special Agent Darryl Templeton and Special Agent Eagle Ear. He discovers a pair of cold spikes who, it is later concluded, were part of a breeding program trying to foster talented bloodlines. It marks the beginning of a very troubled career with Project Sumter.

August, 2004 – It is believed that the talented serial killer Lethal Injection committed his first murder in this general timeframe.

February 12, 2005 – Lethal Injection’s killing spree begins to make news. Project Sumter determines these grisly murders are probably caused by a talented person and goes to Condition One.

March 8, 2005 – Teresa Ortiz’s father is killed by Lethal Injection. She will later be adopted by Javier Herrera, with the financial and legal support of the Oldfather Foundation.

May 17, 2005 – A hacker shuts down the Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix, Arizona and prevents Lethal Injection from escaping Project agents. Lethal Injection is killed while resisting arrest. Analysts from Project Sumter determine that the hacker was a talented individual who was actually in the airport terminal, directly manipulating electrical circuits. A file is opened and the talented hacker is codenamed Open Circuit. The Project correctly surmises this is Circuit’s first crime. It will not be his last.

So will I ever go back and tell you what happened in those missing years? Surely there were plenty of freaky goings on during the Second World War and the Cold War, along with the Civil War, yeah?

Oh yeah.

But those are stories for another time. For now, I hope you enjoyed reading a little bit about the background of the story we’re telling right now. Tune in Monday for the next instalment of Water Fall, until then may you have as much fun with your world building as I do.

World Building Stuff: A Glance at Terra Eternal

It’s time for some nitty gritty stuff. Everyone likes world building, at least everyone that I know, and it’s one of the most involved parts of writing there is. Today, instead of messing with all the boring theory of writing, I thought I’d take you on a quick tour of some of the fun world building that I’ve done while writing stories. Today let’s look at Terra Eternal, a major part of the Endless Horizons story setting. If you haven’t read The Doyen and The Dragon, my first short story that involves them, you might want to do that before checking this out. On the other hand, perhaps you’d prefer to browse this first. It’s up to you.

Now technically, Terra Eternal represents all or part of 52 different worlds scattered about under the great sky. So really, working with them is more like worlds building than world building. But at the same time, since all of these worlds are connected to each other and even share something like a unifying culture, in many ways they are actually a single world.

Now I could run you through the entire history, or give you a quick sketch of the overarching government and social systems, but really that would be way beyond the scope of a single post.

Besides, that’s really not how their world grew up. Believe it or not, Terra Eternal actually started out as the villain of another piece, which I haven’t shown you all any part of as yet. However, beyond knowing that they were a vast, interdimensional empire with practically inexhaustible resources, I didn’t bother to set much in stone about them when that project was starting. I simply selected a number of cool sounding ideas and figured I could work out a good overarching structure for a society they could call home later.

So rather than give you the unified theory of Terra Eternal, I decided to just share some of the ideas that now define them, and let you enjoy envisioning the shape of their worlds just like I did. Ready? Let’s go!

  • Bruja” Magic – In some worlds, magic itself displays consciousness and can form the basis for strange and alien forms of life. This is called bruja magic by theorists in Terra Eternal. The origin of the term is not known, although it’s frequently credited to Veronica Locke. Because it is often hostile or malicious towards humans, bruja magic is considered a bad thing by most in the borders of Terra Eternal.
  • Doyen – Literally means “brilliant” and refers to a small group of crack problem solvers. Doyen are called in whenever the red tape that binds the empire together pulls too tight and what needs to be accomplished cannot be done in good time. They have a great deal of autonomy to deal with problems, and can take great liberty with the resources on hand, but they also suffer a set of fairly draconian restrictions to keep them from running wild. Technically speaking, they don’t belong to the nobility of any of the fifty two worlds, or swear allegiance to any of the three lesser thrones.
  • Friedrich Goltermann – One of the Three Founders. A shrewd politician and philosopher, he is credited with establishing much of the basic theory behind Terra Eternal’s government. The fact that it still functions several hundred years later, on a much larger scale than he ever anticipated, is credit to his brilliance.
  • “Powers” – Refers to any creature that embodies, or claims to embody, an abstract concept. In some cases, can also refer to creatures that embody or claim to embody specific places or the consciousness of things. Exactly what the power embodies tends to severely warp it’s personality and perspective. A form of bruja magic that is considered particularly dangerous.
  • Regula – Term that refers to the commanding officer of a military unit. The rank is always given along with the position and size of the unit the officer commands. Thus a regula millenia outranks a regula decima and a regula centuria.
  • Sail – The foundation of magic is the sail. Just like a ship is propelled by sails collecting the wind, so magic matrices are propelled by sails collecting magic as it rises up out of the earth. Also, just like the sails on ships, more surface area creates a better sail. Thus, those who use a lot of magic tend to wear flowing, many layered garments.
  • Soul of One – The nature and rules governing the many Earths vary greatly, and as often as not the face of the world is different as well. But sometimes there are enough similarities between worlds that even some people are duplicated. People that exist on multiple Earths are known as Souls of One, and Terra Eternal has a special role for them to play in the life of the Empire…
  • “Sterile” Magic – Magic that is simply a resource to be harnessed, like the wind or water. Pretty much the opposite of bruja magic.
  • Throne of Terra Eternal, The – Refers to a massive magical construct built by the Three Founders when establishing Terra Eternal. The exact functions of the construct remain known only to the successors of the Founders, but it is generally viewed as an important part of keeping the empire ticking.
  • Thrones of Terra Eternal, Three Lesser – Refers to those individuals who have inherited the authority of the Three Founders. The roles of the three lesser thrones are defined by the True Throne, making the people who hold the lesser thrones surprisingly limited in their powers. These three thrones are frequently referred to by the name of the founder who’s authority they embody. Thus “the Throne of Vesuvius” refers to Terra Eternal’s supreme military authority, and so on.
  • “Thrones” – A generic term for the individual who rules a specific political group or piece of territory. For example, “So-and-so is the throne of Terra Geodesia.” Frequently used when the speaker cannot remember the local name for such rulers. It’s automatically considered respectful, since it’s also the term used to refer to the seat of Terra Eternal’s powers. Of course, not everyone likes to be reminded that there’s a bigger power out there that they have to answer too…
  • Throneworlds – Refers to the first two worlds of Terra Eternal, which are still the seat of culture and progress for the empire. Unlike the other worlds in the empire, no special measures are needed to travel between the two beyond finding one of a series of “shallowings” between the worlds that were created by Locke.
  • Veronica Locke – One of the Three Founders. Credited with first envisioning the Throneworlds and convincing the other two to help establish them. Many of the spellworks that tie the empire together are based on her work. When they are not direct copies.
  • Vesuvius the Great – One of the Three Founders. Locke’s ideas required influence across two globes to implement properly. Vesuvius led the military campaigns that gave Terra Eternal that influence.

So there you go! A few of the ideas underpinning Terra Eternal. Is there any other part of the world building process you’d like to see me highlight here? Or perhaps another part of another story you’d like to see highlighted? Project Sumter? The Divided Futures? Post it in the comments!

World Building: Start with the Basics

Okay, so we’ve covered original vs. derivative in terms of world building. But whether you want to be completely original or mostly derivative, you’ve got to do some of the work yourself, otherwise your story will be a flat thing in a flat world (and I’m not talking about Discworld here.) So where do you start?

There are obviously a lot of things to think about when you’re building a world. What’s the geography like? What’s the climate? Who lives there, what do they want, how old is the world and what’s the current political situation, what events led to the current status quo, and on and on. To be honest, it can be more than a little overwhelming. It’s important to keep some basic principles in mind.

Build From the Bottom Up

Start with the basic ideas. Where did the world and the people come from? Is it a colony created by Earth around a distant star in the far future? Or is it on a disk on the back of elephants, put there by bickering lesser “deities”? And how much of the world’s origin is even known to the average person? If it’s not known, what are the prevalent theories?

Who lives there? Are there other races beyond humans? Are there humans at all, or is the average person an oddity there? How much of the world is actually explored and understood by the people who your story focuses on?

Frame the Rules of Enagement

What do you want to your world to be about? While in the real world science, exploration, political theory and standard of living were all linked in their advancement, there’s nothing wrong with your distorting your world slightly to bring one of those elements to the foreground. But if you’re going to do that, you need to know that you’re doing it from fairly early on, or you’ll have to go back and make significant adjustments to bring things in line.

Also, if you’re going to have magic, metahuman abilities like telepathy or telekinesis, nonhuman races or even stranger things like lurking eldritch horrors, you’re going to need to decide on that at this stage. Adding these things after the world is mostly set can result in story elements that are wildly out of place.

Set The Scene

Choose a particular part of your world to focus on first. Choose a country (or a city or a county) to focus on first. Build that place until it’s what you want it to be, then think about other parts. It’s true that no country is an island (unless, of course, the country is a literal island(s), like Britain, Japan or Madagascar, but that’s not what we’re saying here) and as you think of ways for that your first area of focus ties to other places in the world, go ahead and write them down.

Eventually, you’ll need to think about places outside where you want to tell stories, unless you want to convey the idea that you’re dealing with one of the last places on earth or a small colony in space or something. When the time comes, don’t be afraid to go back and edit what you’ve already written about your first place. It’s important not to give the impression that everything in the world revolves around that one patch of ground. But there’s nothing wrong with having a very firm idea what one place is like before you move on. If you’ve done it right, you can actually follow the lines of commerce, politics and money from place to place until you have at least a general idea what the entire known world is like!

Establish the Core Conflict

There’s a conflict inherent to every setting. When looking at the part of the world you’re working on, find out what that is. As your characters explore that world later, they’ll have to encounter it at least tangentially, or their life won’t look real. For example, in Asimov’s robot novels, it’s the struggle between Earth and the Spacer worlds that results in the murders that Elijah Bailey must solve. Bailey’s conflict is between himself and the murderer but the larger conflict in the world around him defines those smaller conflicts in dozens of ways, including the constant presence of R. Daneel Olivaw.

On the other hand, few conflicts are world wide. It’s fine if one area has one overarching conflict, such as the local equivalent to Prohibition and the resulting organized crime, while another area is wracked with conflict between a petty tyrant and la Resistance.

Identify Major Players

I’m not talking about the characters your story will be about (although they may be in your story, and they may even be your characters, the just don’t have to be.) Rather, decide who’s important in your neck of the woods. Who runs the government, who owns major businesses, who heads la Resistance (if there is one). Sooner or later, you’re probably going to need one of these people to help your story along, and it looks much better if you can show their influence from the beginning, rather than having a major player in the military-industrial complex simply appear out of thin air.

With these five basic rules to help you lay a foundation you should be well on your way to making a decent world. Getting the broad strokes down is just as important as all the other minutia, and the one won’t look nearly as good without the other. There may be another few posts on the subject of word building, but for the time being, I hope that will be enough to get the wheels turning.

The World You Know…

It’s one of the great goals of a science fiction or fantasy author to create their own world and their own rules and then run with their story as far as they can. Look at Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” or J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Who wouldn’t want a work of fiction of that caliber to their credit? These worlds were different and captivating, in Tolkien’s case so captivating that a whole generation of writers chose to pay homage to his Middle Earth rather than write different worlds that might be overshadowed by his towering work.

Now there’s a whole ‘nother essay or two on the subject of being original versus being derivative, but that’s not exactly where I want to go today. Rather, I wanted to talk about why I’ve chosen to set Project Sumter in what is essentially the world we know, rather than attempting to write a story in a world that is built from scratch.

When you are writing a novel there are any number of reasons you might choose to set your story in the everyday world, or at least a world that is very much like it, with only one or two major differences. You might want the familiarity to help readers adjust to the more fantastic elements (after all, not all readers are ready for full fledged fantasy), you might not have a fully developed world on hand or you may just feel that some element of your story is heavily invested in the real world and doesn’t make sense if transferred over to one you create.

In the case of Project Sumter, the Helix and his friends occupy the real world for three basic reasons.

One, living in something like the modern day real world is part of the superhero genre. Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, Batman and, of course, Superman, along with legions of other comic book characters have always inhabited a world strongly based on the one we live in. While Heat Wave is obviously not a comic book, many of the elements it plays up find their modern day roots in comic books, and in order to emphasize that, one of the things that makes sense is to set it in a world virtually identical to our own.

Two, I am not yet confident in my ability to lay out the breadth and richness of a truly great original world. The kind of careful thought that creates a Middle Earth is breathtaking in its scope. Tolkien wrote about it for his whole life and, even after his death, the full backstory of the world was far from complete. I’ve considered writing my career for barely ten years. I’m not sure it’s reasonable for any author to be up to that kind of a work after such a short period of time. For now, the much smaller tweaks to history that come with writing fiction in the real world will serve to hone my skills. Perhaps one day I’ll have the necessary skill for an endeavor of the world building scale. We’ll see.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the story doesn’t demand it. Superhumans are nothing new in the history of storytelling. From Merlin to Hercules, stories about people with strange and wondrous abilities interacting with normal people are nothing new. If a story does not call for some radical departure from recorded human history to tell, it is probably better of told in the confines of our own world. A story that is made needlessly complex isn’t necessarily better, just more complex. And a complex thing is much harder to do right.

Heat Wave wants to be a piece of speculative fiction set in the real world and I want to do it right. The best way to meet both goals is to set it here in our world, with a slightly different past, perhaps, and see what happens. I hope that you’ll come along for the ride.