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8 Sentence Sunday #5: The Aethercraft

18 Jan

For this week’s “8 Sentence Sunday,” I wanted to share one of Voi’s big, exciting moments in my WIP. It’s probably the most “dieselpunk-y” of my snippets so far.

As a pilot, Voi gets to fly a very experimental plane known as the “aethercraft” that was designed by her newest employer, Captain Neverri. After the basic mechanics of this craft are explained to Voi while they stand in a hangar, the captain reveals it to her for the first time.

This is what she sees.

The Snippet

No one spoke as Voi drew near to examine the machine.  She found herself holding her breath in reverence; surely Colonel Snipes was correct in comparing it to one of Ramboit’s controversial abstract masterpieces.

Its polished metallic body was exceptionally streamlined and much flatter than that of an ordinary plane.  A gentle bulge ran along the length of its almost nonexistent fuselage, which was smoothly riveted to conjoin with its swept-back wings so as to seem comprised entirely of wings.  Here, within this bulge, was also a cockpit enclosed by a clear canopy—perhaps an acrylic construct, Voi guessed, knowing the captain’s penchant for innovation.

Propped up low on its landing gear, the aerocraft reminded Voi of a slick, thin manta ray—like the ones her mother used to take her to see at the Aquiriem du Habour Tuccila in Tryste as a girl.  So sinuously crafted were the wings that Voi was very much left with the striking impression of a work of art…if she dared venture that far in her opinion of a metal aerocraft.

Well, the captain certainly has an eye for aesthetics.

What do you think?

What kind of aerocraft does it look like Voi is getting ready to fly? Can you tell some things that might be different in Voi’s world as compared to our own? Also, is there anything new you can infer about Voi’s character–her attitudes, beliefs and such? (I feel like I’m writing a lesson plan or something, haha.)


Portraying Cultures & Peoples In Speculative Fiction

10 Jul

Normally I only post on Wednesdays (every other), but…I came across a blog from a writer who was new to me and she had a very interesting article that really got me thinking about some things.

I was actually doing a search on Twitter for other writers who are into the dieselpunk aesthetic and found Sophia Martin’s blog by happenstance.  Not long ago she wrote a post on dieselpunk–which, of course, I couldn’t resist.  Though, there’s a whole lot more packed into her post than explanations on what dieselpunk is.

Sophia asks some really thoughtful questions, I think, that could easily apply to all sub-genres of speculative fiction.  A substantial part of her post regards the problem of Orientalism, which she describes as “the representation of [non-western] cultures (most often Middle Eastern, but it’s just as valid for various Asian areas as well as any other part of the world where people are predominantly brown, in my opinion) through the filter of western ideas, desires, opinions, prejudices, etc.”  It has a negative connotation because these portrayals of non-western cultures tend to be heavily romanticized, prejudiced and/or grossly exaggerated.  Sophia also lists some examples of where this has been done, namely in movies.

I started writing up a response to share some of my thoughts, but then I realized it was practically going to be an entire blog post in itself, haha.  So instead of making a ginormous post over there, I decided to just blog about it here in a question-answer format.

Sophia Asks Writers:

“How do you portray a culture respectfully while simultaneously making it mysterious, sinister, and, in many cases, somehow mystical?”

I actually think this is part of the problem: (1) some writers try too hard at attempting to portray an entire culture rather than the individuals that contribute to it, and (2) they automatically settle for lumping an entire culture into “good” or “bad” categories.  The problem is that real-life cultures, like individuals, are way too complex for such simple treatment, so I don’t see why it should be any different in fiction that aims for at least some measure of verisimilitude.

When writers attempt to do these things, it tends to get especially hokey when they develop gross caricatures to represent cultures or focus too much on certain (often superficial) aspects of characters and take things too far—i.e. the writer harps on the same point over and over again in attempt to establish the “otherness” of someone/-thing: “He had an Italian nose…” (Which I think is a terribly lazy description, btw!)  Then the reader starts thinking: “Okay pal, you mentioned his nose several times in the first, second and third chapters.  How many more times do we need to be reminded of his ‘Italian’ features?  What is this obsession?!  We are capable of remembering details, you know.”

That kind of focus is too narrow, imo.  There should be many different aspects about a culture (cuisine, gestures, common verbal expressions used, customs, etc.) and yes, even an individual (quirks, speech pattern, thoughts, beliefs, etc.).  Of course, within the confines of a novel, you can’t list too many of these aspects or else it gets out of hand–yup, that elusive art/design principle of balance.  Still, these aspects should be given ample thought by the writer, and I think peppering–no, that implies superficiality–placing them into a story over time, preferably at different times, and refraining from putting too much focus on any of them in any given scene (unless a plot point hinges on them for some reason) would help alleviate this problem.

So how do you make a culture seem mysterious to a primarily western audience?  Study non-western cultures (especially rare ones)–which may include interviewing and interacting with people from those cultures–to inform your portrayal of said cultures in stories set in our world.  Or, in the case of secondary worlds, use that gained knowledge of other cultures as inspiration in order to derive new ones that will then, hopefully, seem “different” to your target audience.  (Easier said than done, right?)

Those are my amateur-writer thoughts, anyway…

(You know, author Kameron Hurley actually writes some really good posts that are related to this, namely her worldbuilding posts (see Worldbuilding 201: Normalizing the Absurd for an example).  I really think this lady knows what she’s doing and talking about when it comes to creating and successfully portraying unique cultures.)

Sophia Asks Writers:

“But how do you write about exotic lands without othering those people the main characters, who by nature of being dieselpunk characters will be westerners, will encounter there?”

Well initially, when anyone encounters something (or someone) that is unfamiliar to them then that something will automatically be “other” until they can get past the newness and are able to accept it as just another aspect of their reality–or, in the case of fiction, the story’s reality.

But that’s the whole appeal of adventures like in Indiana Jones or Star Wars and lots of other speculative stories.  Viewers/readers are always being introduced to new worlds, characters and cultures that may be very “other” to them, but hopefully, after having experienced the entire story through the eyes of the locals (characters), they’ve gained a better understanding of these things (assuming they’ve been accurately portrayed to begin with) as well as an appreciation for them–lessening the “otherness” and bringing about a sense of familiarity.

Also, I think you could still write a main dieselpunk character(s) who isn’t a westerner, per se, in the same way that there can be Asian-influenced steampunk, for example.  It’s just not typical to see here in the West.

And then there’s the potential for racism—which, if it’s an important part of a story… I mean it isn’t really bad to incorporate it if you’re going for some realism, but it’s different when it stems from a character rather than the author, if that makes sense…  But yeah, I won’t even get into that right now, haha.

In the end, I think all of this comes down to, well, (1) knowing what you’re talking about in the first place, (2) learning how much focus to put on any one thing in a story and (3) figuring out how to tastefully and artfully balance all the elements of your stories—kinda like art.  Though, like with art, measuring the success of the execution of these things is pretty subjective, so what works for you may not work for others and vice versa…

So yeah, those are my thoughts. 🙂

What Do You Think?

Have you encountered Orientalism in your writing projects, or seen it in fiction you’ve read/seen?  How can it/should it be addressed?

Setting Reflects Character Reflects Setting

7 Sep

Last week Sue Healy wrote a post about the connection between character and setting, which I thought was interesting.  To demonstrate how settings can reveal different aspects of people’s characters, she put up two chair portraits painted by Vincent Van Gogh portraying fellow artist Paul Gauguin and also himself then asked readers to imagine the character of the users of the chairs in the paintings based off their observations.  It makes for an interesting study.

I liken this to interior design (which was my field of study, for those who don’t know).  I think a good designer or decorator will have a knack for being able to study their clients and intuit what sort of things they like by using tools such as interviews or the observation of their existing spaces (if possible).  Emily Henderson is especially good at this, imo.  On her HGTV show Secrets From a Stylist she interviews her clients, in part, by placing an array of various objects before them and asking them to choose some.  She then asks them to explain why they chose those objects.  (Usually she is doing this with two people who live together and are trying to find a happy balance between their differing styles.)  Emily can then use this information to help her determine their unique style, which she even gives names for; some of her most recent style prescriptions have been titles like “Graphic Antique,” “Retro Polynesian Kitsch,” or “Untamed Modern Funk.”  (It never ceases to amaze me what crazy names she manages to come up with each week.)

Spaces As They Pertain to Characters

When it comes to writing about our characters and getting to know them, I think writers can take a similar approach.  In a way, we are the designers of not just our characters’ surroundings but their entire lives; what tremendous freedom (and responsibility)!  When getting to know your characters, I think it can be fun, and useful, to try different things like interviewing them (really) and seeing what kind of answers they give back.  Who knows, you might even discover some of their quirks in the process!  (As an example, by using another method mentioned below, I learned that my protagonist dislikes certain rigid, cold and metallic objects–which actually affects her character beyond issues of setting but also in her interactions with certain personality types.)

A Room with a View, by Alexei Butirskiy. I wonder what kind of person might live in this space?

Some questions to consider of your main character(s), especially, might be:

  • What kinds of things are in your bedroom?
  • What are some of your favorite objects in your house, and why?
  • What things don’t you like about your home?
  • Can you alter those things to better suit your tastes?
  • If you can, why haven’t you?

People in real life have the power to shape their surroundings; so do your characters.  Put another way, settings can reflect the character of their users.

One thing to keep in mind, and I’m sure you can relate to, is that sometimes people just get stuck with things they don’t like in their surroundings and are forced live with, given the circumstances; we can’t control everything.  (Therein lies an opportunity to create tension or conflict, however big or small.)  In this way, settings have the power to shape the habits and attitudes of their users, or characters.  (Maybe a homeowner or tenant has to jerk some of their doors in special ways for them to open during especially humid and/or hot parts of the year, when a material like wood can swell.)  In other words, characters can sometimes reflect or respond to certain aspects of their settings.

Setting reflects character reflects setting; it’s a two-way street!

If your story doesn’t actually ever take place in any of your character’s homes, however, you could always use this approach for the important public or nonresidential spaces in you story’s world.  Consider the function and look of the space but also the nature of the users.  You can ponder on or ask questions such as:

  • Who uses this space?
  • How do they use it and for what purpose?
  • Does the space work well for them?
  • If it doesn’t, how does this effect the user(s)?

Ever been to a public space that just bugs you for some reason, even if you’re not quite sure why that is?  (Maybe the lights are too bright or too dim, or the colors are too exciting for the purpose of that particular setting; maybe there isn’t really any color in the space to begin with and you find this depressing.  Perhaps it is even the people who maintain this space that bug you–poor customer service, sparsity of available personnel, etc.)  I bet you people who design spaces for a living think about these things all the time!  It’s their job to improve spaces, after all, and to do this they need to understand why they don’t work in the first place.

Problematic spaces can create obstacles and negative experiences.  In the story world this translates as possible sources for tension and conflict.  These can be used in just about any setting, provided there is a need for environmental conflict to begin with.  Otherwise it might not make sense to draw attention to the nonfunctional or negative features of a space.  Though, maybe your protagonist is rummaging around at nighttime looking for clues in an old attic and the lights aren’t always working properly or the structure itself is unsound.  You never know if or when that subfloor might give out!

The interviewing approach isn’t the only way to get these answers out of your characters.  You could also just take the  “discovery writing” approach and become the observer in the sense that you’re learning to “see” what it is your characters surround themselves with or are surrounded by.  (Personally, this is my preferred method because I feel I get more natural results.)  Stick ’em in a particular room or space and let them roam and idle about, just to see what details pop out at you most or come naturally to you.  You could get a potential scene, or at least a scene idea, out of this exercise.  I know I certainly have!  (Granted, this isn’t exactly observing, as you are continuously filling in details arbitrarily and “designing” the space as you go, but the focus is on learning to envision the spaces your characters use.)

Don’t Just Stop There!

Okay, so you’ve figured out your characters’ settings, but how do they matter in the actual story?  Designers can rely on tools such as paint, fabric and other materials as well as structural components to give life to their concepts and ideas; writers simply have words.  How, then, can the words you choose to describe your characters and their surroundings work to your advantage so that the setting becomes not just a prop but a tool for complementing, amplifying or providing contrast to your characters?  I have some more thoughts on this, so I’ll save them for next week.

How important is setting in relation to your characters?

Is it something you consciously consider as you write about them?  Also, what kinds of exercises have you done in the past to better get in touch with the settings in your stories?

Worldbuilding: Magic Systems

17 Mar
“Elemental Evolution” by bdotward.

This is part of an ongoing series about worldbuilding.

*     *     *

I have to be honest: I am running out of steam with this series.  So today, if you don’t mind, I’m gonna be a little bit lazy.

If you’re writing fantasy, read this article by Brandon Sanderson, if you haven’t already.  (And here is a continuation of the concepts in that article.)  I think it’s the best I’ve come across on the topic of magic systems and will be basing the rest of this post on it.

What kind of magic system(s) have you worked with?

I’ve been experimenting with what Brandon Sanderson calls a “middle ground” magic system, with an emphasis on the soft side.  There are no fancy spells or long drawn-out rules, though there is consistency.  There is some explanation as to how it all works, but I generally want it to be a mystery to readers.  An elementalist can only use their powers if their element is present in their surroundings.  (And in the case of fire-wielders, they must use matches or lighters to produce and work with a flame until they’ve become advanced enough to make things “spontaneously combust.”)

However, because I’m using a “softer” system, I tend not to use magic to get my characters out of a tight fix, as Brandon’s article talks about.  If they win a battle it isn’t always because they were better elementalists.  It’s usually because they were smarter about the way they used their abilities and/or their environment or had some other skill which gave them an edge.  (They aren’t at all like your all-powerful Jedi Knights.  Well, with the exception of two secondary characters, but they’re just extreme freaks of nature–exceptional elementalists at their prime.)  Maybe they even had the element of surprise.

(The biggest problems in Element 7 cannot be solved with magic anyway because they are problems of human nature.  The ability of those few who are able to manipulate the elements is one of the greatest problems in the first place.  How do you live in a world beside people with such an ability?  Could it ever be safe?)

These are the kind of things I like to consider before I decide to use magic.

How about you?  If you are writing fantasy, what kind of magic system do you use?

Worldbuilding: Languages

16 Mar

>This is part of an ongoing series about worldbuilding.

*     *     *

I think this is something I’ve always played around with as a kid.  I used to create interesting-looking writing characters and put them to the English alphabet.  Never did a whole lot with them, though.  (I did actually create a new font type using Fontifier once.  That was a lot of fun.)

But really, languages go waaaaay deeper than characters and alphabets, as I’m sure you can appreciate.


I have a confession to make: I am a horrible citizen of the world.  I’ll learn a new language, oh sure, but don’t count on me to actually use it on a daily basis or, heaven bid, speak it fluently.  I took about four years of Spanish in high school, but I don’t actually use it a whole lot now (except occassionally at work, when people are trying to figure out what stuff to buy; I can generally pick up what they’re talking about and make recommendations for them).

What a waste, right?  Guess I’m just your typical American in that way, trying to earn some college credits to make life easier down the road.  I was an honors student (still am–magna cum laude, yo!); the GPA game, inevitably, took precedence.

It’s just I’ve always been fascinated with people who can speak other languages; it’s a mystery to me.  Though I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to become one of those people (as stupid as this may sound) because then the mystery of it all would be gone.

Call it a silly form of idealism.

I don’t know.  I think some people have a gift for speaking in different tongues and others don’t.  (Excuses, right?)  But I don’t think those four years and AP credits were a complete waste of my time.  In fact, it wasn’t wasteful at all.

Building a Language (or two, or three, or…)

If you speak Spanish, then you already know that the syntax rules are a bit different from those in English.  For example, if you want to say “the fat cat” you wouldn’t literally say “the fat cat;” you’d say “the cat fat” (el gato gordo).  Not to mention, words in Spanish actually have gender associations, so if you wanted to say “the fat girl,” it wouldn’t be la chica gordo but instead la chica gorda.  (But don’t go spouting that one around!  “Ey, chica gorda–ven aquí!” *slap*)  Of course, there are always exceptions to the rules, further complicating things.

Anyways, I always thought this was interesting.

These two rules about Spanish are just the little, easy things to catch on to.  We haven’t even brushed verb conjugation!  (Good lord.)  I can’t properly imagine how languages like Japanese or Arabic might work, but I bet it’d be fun to learn (if only out of curiosity).  In any case, it’s stuff like that which you can incorporate into your own make-believe languages to make them more life-like while sounding foreign to the English-speaker’s ear.

There is an entire world of languages out there from which to derive inspiration and to serve as models for any languages you decide to create.  Even if you haven’t taken lessons in another language, you can at least look up phonetics and phonology or listen to audio and video clips of people talking in tongues that are foreign to you.  Honestly, being a musician, a lot of times I just go by the general sound that I want a certain language to take on, and I only develop enough of it to get by.  (If I didn’t, I would have never gotten around to writing the first draft in the first place!)

To create a new language, I would recommend getting a feel for the sound of it first by brainstorming sound combinations for words (which don’t necessarily have to have meanings just yet but can later) then establish the alphabet and “rules” while developing a vocabulary that you think you’ll want to use in your story as you go along.  Of course, you can get really in depth with this, but you don’t have to because the rest, as they say, is just gravy.

An Example

So right now in Element 7 there are actually seven languages which are made reference to.  (And no, that was not an intentional allusion to the seven elements in the story, though now that I think about it… Hm, I could really do something with that!)  Anyhow, those languages are:

  1. Windi (which is just my name for English, because it wouldn’t really make sense to use “English” in a make-believe world);
  2. Borellian (I use this one a lot, actually; it’s modeled after Italian and French and was meant to be a bridge language between the ancient Nolians, who spoke Windi, and the Trysteese, who were displaced from their homeland into Nolian territory–which is why it’s somewhat similar to Windi, or English);
  3. Heinu (only loosely developed at this stage; somewhat modeled after Japanese);
  4. Keshema (kind of inspired by Arabic, maybe?  Very loosely developed);
  5. Urzu (um…couldn’t tell you what that’s modeled after, though it’s certainly not Urdu; I haven’t used it much, at this stage);
  6. Qyowen (a weird mixture of Chinese maybe and early Mesoamerican languages, I suppose; it’s considered an antiquated language, so I haven’t used it extensively); and finally
  7. Trysteese (which originally was going to be modeled off of Greek, though it turned out to be something else; also considered an antiquated language).


Is it crazy that I’ve listed that many languages for one novel?  I hope not.  It’s not like I’ve fully developed them all, either.  For most of them, I’ve just given them distinct names and only use a couple of words from each in my character’s dialogue.  For some, it’s mostly just been useful for coming up with city and region names.

But anyways, those are my languages.  I am by no means an expert in linguistics.  Not even close.  I just like making stuff up (or mixing stuff, as may be the case).

Here is a snapshot of an Excel table I’ve created using Holly Lisle’s Language Clinic suggestions.  It helps me keep track of all the words and rules I develop along the way for Borellian (though, honestly, I sometimes just wing the rules or follow the ones used in Spanish, heh):

(Click it to see it full-size!)

A few examples of sentences in Borellian might be:

  • Ah, e Dammissi Román–noittro piolotti nouva!  (“Ah, and Miss Román–our new pilot!”)
  • Nes no saene viti dammene, no?  (“She isn’t very lady-like, is she?”)
  • Ouele, nes saelét cala fete fer tad tempe.  (Literally, “Yes, she has been like that for all time,” or more simply, “Yes, she’s always been that way.”)

Random, I know.  Only the first one is in the story now.  And here’s what Trysteese would look like if it was written out:

Voi’s name in Trysteese, though it’s spelled the approximated “Foi” since the letter V doesn’t exist.

Why Use Languages At All?

I think the number one reason would be just to make any cultural differences between your characters stand out and feel more realistic–particularly if they are incumbent on the plot.

Language is important in my WIP because certain world events have happened to certain peoples, which makes them perceive things differently than their neighbors.  (Vague, I know.)  The idea of the seven elements is one of those things which is understood differently between cultures in Element 7, and this colors some of the world religions.  Also, the word emelesia, which is the condition Voi has, has its roots in both Borellian and its predecessor language Trysteese.  And since Voi is half-Borellian…

It’s all very connected.  Let’s just leave it at that.  (Element 7 has first and foremost been a labor of love, people.)

Also, you can have a bit of fun and create language tics which can effect people differently.  For example, urche, the medication Voi takes, is a Borellian word by origin and is pronounced “oor-keh” in that language, though Windi-speakers tend to pronounce it as “yerk.”  This naturally annoys some Borellians to no end, as the two sound nothing alike; it entirely loses its Borellian flavor when pronounced the Windi way.  So sometimes I have one of my Windi-speaking characters use “yerk” to deliberately piss off a particularly annoying Borellian character.  (Voi’s name is another one–“voy” versus “vwah.”)

A minor thing, but I use it to build character.

Hey, what do you know?  My posts are still looking long!

Okay, so tomorrow I’ll touch on magic systems.  (I know Brandon Sanderson wrote a good article on this somewhere…I’ll have to find that.)

Qui aba vú?  “What about you?”

Okay, so that’s not actually 100% original at all because qui actually means a few other things in French and other languages like Latin and Catalan (but I really, really love that word and kind of want people to be able to guess at the meaning anyway, so meh).  And according to Wiktionary, vu means “you” in Ido.  Though honestly, I didn’t know about that last one.  (I just looked it up, heh.)  But aba doesn’t appear to mean “about” in any language I have access to, so hurray for that, I suppose.

That’s another thing you can do is Goggle the words you think you’re inventing to see if they’ve already been invented.  It can be crushing. *sighs*

So how about you?  Have you tried your hand at creating a new language, or do you think it’s just a waste of time?

Worldbuilding: Setting & Maps

15 Mar

>This is part of an ongoing series about worldbuilding.

*     *     *

Last time I gave you my personal definition of worldbuilding and mentioned that next I’d be talking about settings (among other things) and processes I’ve used to develop them.

All right, then so here it goes.


Before, I’ve talked about The Importance of Setting in a story.  Where do you get setting ideas?  Largely from the real world, I imagine.

I started off being inspired by how American and European cities might have looked and functioned during the mid-1930s/pre-WWII era, actually.  (I don’t think this is an era that gets explored much in fantasy.)  I’m not writing about an alternate history, though, so this era only serves as an aesthetic and practical guide.  I was really inspired by artwork and photographs of actual places, as well.

Then I came up with some names for countries, brainstormed some general ideas about them and just flew off from there.  (Real helpful, huh?)  I’ll explain more.


It has helped me immensely to keep track of locations by creating a map, so this might work best if I showed you a couple:

This one basically shows important geographical regions–deserts, rivers, mountain ranges, oceans, etc.–in my WIP.  I used Adobe Photoshop to create most of it, though I used AutoCAD, a computer-aided drafting program, to do the little scale.  (CAD is good for exact measurements ‘n stuff.  I often use it to draft floor plans and other similar drawings.)

The compass, however, is not mine.  Honestly, I don’t remember where I got it from.  (Does that make me a bad person?)  I could have made one in CAD, though.  Hm, guess I was just being lazy!

Same story for this one, only it focuses more on the city names and more clearly delineates the nations with color.  I separated these things from the geographical regions to keep it from getting too cluttered (though, this isn’t all that necessary).

To tell you the truth, neither of these drawings is complete.  I really need to go back and update them with new references I’ve made in the story.  (I tend to keep a lot of info up in my noggin ’cause I don’t wanna have to keep making corrections to everything when I change my mind.)  But still, it was a good starting point.  I know where everything is located and if I need to I can measure approximate distances.  This helps for calculating realistic traveling times, which is important, I think, when you’re writing about an aviatrix–or train travel, or any other kind of travel, really.

(That’s another thing I’ve had to do is research typical car and train speeds in the 20s and 30s.  Usually I just pick one car and train model, look up the specs and use those as a starting point.  Of course, it’s all approximated.  I don’t want to get too anal about that stuff.)

Gosh, I wish I could find that link that got me started on these maps!  Suffice it to say, it’s a fairly detailed process that would not fit very well into a little blog post…


So there ya go.  I would like to go back and try some new things I learned, to make the mountains pop out more, for example (that person’s map on the link has way better mountains than I do), but that’s something for another day.

What else can you use to draw maps if you don’t have Adobe Photoshop?

Well, you can always draw it by hand.  Do a couple of drafts in pencil, trace over the final one with marker on vellum, trace or marker paper for the final version; splash some color on it here or there… (You cand do that on the back side of the paper so it won’t bleed/smear with the marker, unless you do the marker last and just use pencil first.)  For color, I have these really awesome (though pricey) art markers by Chartpak that work a little like watercolors, the way the colors kind of spread.  Though, they smell really strong.  You can get a little high off of them.

I’m kidding, but they are very strong-smelling.

You could also leave it in black-and-white, which can make for a very graphic effect.  Using different line weights really adds dimension–if you’re interested in the more artsy aspects, that is.

If not, that’s cool, too.

Ultimately, though, I think maps should be used to help the writer visualize where everything in his story is taking place.  Doesn’t matter if they’re pretty or not, especially if they’re only for you.

Setting As Character

As it has often been said, setting can become a kind of character itself in your story.

I’ve found this to be the case in Element 7.  The geographical features actually have a direct relationship to historical events which were initiated by certain characters way back when.  These events have effected the present-day geography.  For example, why do you think the deserts seem to fan out from Daemon’s Pass, just southwest of the Great Sea where floats a collection of scattered islands?  And why is that region called “Daemon’s Pass” anyway?

Hm… The world may never know.  (Especially if I don’t finish editing this beast, heh.)

Finding Inspiration

I find that artwork provides a lot of inspiration for settings in my story.  They even give me some scene ideas.  Here’s one that inspired my vision for Chandra City, Apexia (which is only labeled “Chandra” on my map, so I better fix that, too):

“Autumn’s Glow,” by Alexei Butirskiy

(This artist’s work is so beautiful.  I’m inspired by most of it, actually.)

I imagine that the area my protagonist Voi lives in looks a lot like this.  She stays in a townhouse of yellow brick and light-colored stone in Chandra City on Blithe Street, where an electric trolley runs by.  Also, it’s in the latter half of autumn at the beginning of the novel, so I like the image of there being golden leaves on the trees and sidewalks at this time.  This is exactly where Chapter 1 starts off–someplace peaceful to contrast the psychological horror of Voi’s condition.

Her home is her refuge from the world.

In Chapter 1, she is experiencing…what I will call a “private state of heightened awareness” as she soaks in a clawfoot tub, avoiding her meds…just generally being a naughty emelesiac.  Kind of like this:

Original author unknown.

(But trust me, it’s not what you think.  Though, I certainly want you to believe it is.  I’m hoping that the intent behind this scene thrives off reader assumptions.  I’d like to share it sometime, once I’ve shopped it around a bit.)

Meh, I could mention something about Borellia, too, but you know how I am with words.  I will say, though, that the ancient ruins and antiquity of Italian cities have been a big inspiration for my vision of Borellia, as have French towns with half-timber structures from Medieval times.

And Airships.  You just have to have airships in a 1930s-inspired world.  (This was during the latter years of their Golden Age, after all.)

So that’s kind of how I think about settings.  Next time: languages!  (Oh yes.)

How About You?

Do you like to use maps to aid with fleshing out your story?  If so, do you keep them pretty simple or like to deck them out?  Also, where do you tend to find inspiration for the settings in your storyworld(s)?


14 Mar
Photoshop’d two internet photos of Dubai, for fun.

This is the first in what will be a series of blog entries on the topic of worldbuildingTo view the others, just use the “Key Words” pull-down menu on the lower end of the right sidebar, scroll down and click on “worldbuilding.” 🙂

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You know, I have this horrible habit of typing W-O-L-R-D at the start of “worldbuilding.”  It’s annoying.  Does that ever happen to you?

What is worrrrldbuilding, exactly?

I’ll give you a brief definition of what I think it is: Worldbuilding is simply the process of constructing (creating) and establishing the necessary background information for a story’s world.  And what kind of background information is deemed necessary, you might ask?  Well, that would depend on what you are writing.

For me, I am working a story in a world that does not exist, so I did some extensive legwork on building that world before diving into it because I needed to figure out what the reality of this new world was like before trying to present it to a reader.  (This is probably one of the few smart things I did before jumping headfirst into my first novel, heh.)  I had to develop a thorough understanding of what made it different from our reality then figure out how to render this through storytelling.  Even after exploring the same world for years, I still feel like there’s more left to discover–which is part of the reason why I want to write more than one book that takes place in it.

If I was writing historical fiction, though, I imagine my worldbuilding process might involve a lot more research on real-world locations and details and less pulling semi-original invented ideas out of my brain and making them happen.  I think there’d be less creativity going on with the worldbuilding and more trying to get the facts straight.  If I were writing fiction set in an alternate history, my worldbuilding process would probably float somewhere in the middle of these two methods.

In any case, research would still play a role, however large or small.

Worldbuilding As an Organic Process

Like achieving focus in one’s story, I believe worldbuilding can take place in both the planning and implementation stages of writing a novel.  During the planning stage its all about the development of ideas; during the implementation, or writing stage it’s about establishing, within the story itself, whichever details the writer feels are needed in order to best tell that story.

You can plan ’til your heart’s content, but there are some things you just can’t plan for.  They just come to you suddenly like a voice from heaven, imparting you with epiphanic artistic insight, and sometimes more like a freight train out of hell (or out of a certain dream sequence from Inception), derailing everything you thought you knew about a setting, demanding that you alter some minor (or major, yikes!) world detail to better fit the developing story.  And not all the stuff you meticulously plan out is going to make it into the novel anyway.   Still, it’s good to know your story’s environment and history before trying to render it and have your characters interact with it.

That’s how I understand it.

So that was all the boring, establish-the-platform stuff.

Now, on to all the fun stuff.  (Note: I’m going to be writing this series in a way that a first-time writer might be able to follow, though I’m aware the majority of my readers have already gone through this process at least once.  Hopefully everyone can get something out of it, though.)

Where To Begin?

Wherever you want to, really.  I started off just journaling about locations I had in mind.  I also collected images and played around with Photoshop for a while (this was when I was first learning to use it) to come up with setting concepts, so that can help sometimes.  I haven’t been able to visit all the locations I developed for my first novel, but I at least know they exist.  My characters sometimes make references to places I plan to take them to later on.

At one point I discovered an amazing author named Holly Lisle.  I have just gobbled up all the stuff she puts out there for writers.  I’ve actually only read one of her novels *guilt, guilt*The Ruby Key (which was great fun, btw, and the cover art is just gorgeous; had it as a desktop wallpaper for a while), but that’s beside the point.  The point is she gives some really helpful advice and offers some great tools that writers can use to help them develop their stories.

Check out her $10 clinics on building cultures and languages, easily downloadable as PDF files.  (She also offers some bundles, which can save you money if you decide to buy more than two or three.)  I’ve found these to be very useful, actually.  I printed them out and keep them in binders on some nearby shelves for easy reference.

Don’t wanna spend any money?  Well, there’s plenty of free stuff out there on the internet that covers worldbuilding.  Trust me.

There are a few aspects of worldbuilding I’ve enjoyed more than others–those being languages, institutions and organizations, magic systems (I don’t actually use the word “magic” at all in my fantasy novel, just “elementalism”) and locales/settings, so I plan on talking about the processes I’ve used to develop some of those areas.  Maybe you’ve used/will use similar processes.  Maybe yours are radically different!

How would you define worldbuilding?

You can find a lot of definitions of worldbuilding on the internet, but I’m more interested in what the term means to you, fellow writers.  Maybe you’d disagree with how I’ve defined worldbuilding.  Maybe it’s too simplified or general.  Perhaps there is even more to it.

So, what are your thoughts about worldbuilding?  What is it?  What is it not?  Is worldbuilding something that every fiction writer should consider doing before writing a novel?

And also, how much detail is too much detail?  How much is not enough?

(Feel free to pick and choose what you want to answer, as always.  I’m just throwing stuff out there.)

Synergy in Worldbuilding (and Beyond)

10 Mar
“Land of Psychedelic Illuminations,” by Brian Exton.

(I must apologize.  My last post wasn’t the clearest, as it came to me in several parts.  I think my whole spiel about using the elements in my story was more about worldbuilding than setting…but then again, the elements are setting, in a way, because they represent Nature, which always surrounds my characters.  This was all left too implied… Bah!  I’m just being a perfectionist again.  Forget I said anything.)

Okay!  So today…I’d like to talk about what happens when setting, character, plot, and all those other important storytelling elements come together in holy matrimony, so to speak.  (Or maybe it’s more like “holy polygamy,” which may or may not be a paradox, heh, but let’s not go there…)

Good Writing + Thorough Development + Cohesion Through Compatibility = Synergy

When all the elements of storytelling come together and somehow, in the mind of the reader, manage to transcend the sum of their parts, it makes for an amazing effect.  When you can’t remove one character, plot point, or detail of the setting from the story without it falling apart or changing altogether, then you know you’ve got something pretty tight (in every sense of that word).

There is a word for this phenomenon.  I believe it is called synergy.  Here is Merriam-Webster’s definition of the term:

A mutually advantageous conjunction or compatibility of distinct business participants or elements (as resources or efforts).

Origin of synergy: New Latin synergia, from Greek synergos working together.

Everyone loves M-W (right?), so I thought I’d put that one out there; but honestly, I think we can do a little better.  Here’s how the American Heritage Dictionary, on, defines synergy:

  1. The interaction of two or more agents or forces so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects.
  2. Cooperative interaction among groups, especially among the acquired subsidiaries or merged parts of a corporation, that creates an enhanced combined effect.

Right, so key words are “compatibility,” “combined effect” and “greater than the sum of their individual effects.”

I love this word to death for two reasons: (1) because it’s one of those words that smacks of New Age and just sounds undeniably cool, but more importantly (2) because it accurately describes a particularly elusive effect that is really more of a feeling one gets or an impression one is left with than a real, tangible thing.  It is a quality of relationship between story elements, a kind of organic network of details that give and take from one another to produce something greater.  It is difficult, I think, to attain in a novel and can be hard to pinpoint when it plays out before your eyes, though you know it when you see it.

A story with synergy has just got that “It Factor.”

Examples Where Synergy is Achieved

Not too long ago I finished reading Kameron Hurley’s debut novel God’s War.  It is an exercise in worldbuilding, among other things, and I believe a successful one at that.  She features a style which is now being called bugpunk.  In an interview with Kameron on Mad Hatter, I read about the source of her inspiration for the novel: a time spent living in South Africa where bugs were simply a normal part of everyday life.  She runs pretty far with that idea in God’s War, incorporating it into the very lifestyles of her characters.  “Magicians,” for example, can call bugs to do their bidding, creating defensive barriers or offensive swarm attacks, among other things.

However, her worldbuilding doesn’t stop there.  Bugs are ginormous and scary in Hurley’s setting of the polluted and war-torn planet of Umayma, but they also serve an even deeper purpose.  All of the technology in this world runs off bug juice, really.  Bug-based technology allows the protagonist Nyxnissa to ride relatively long distances in her “bakkie.”  Bugs also allow Umayma’s inhabitants to communicate via radio.  There are many other ways in which bugs are useful in this world, to be sure, but those are some of the most prominent examples throughout the novel.

All of these details, and so many more, just came together very nicely, in my opinion.  It was all thought-out and cohesive.  It just felt right when it was all mixed together.

I could go into the numerous other reasons of why I feel God’s War is a success as far as worldbuilding is concerned, but that would make for a lengthy analysis.  I think that if you don’t mind ultra-tough female leads and a little head-lopping (for Nyxnissa is a deadly bounty hunter), then you should just go ahead and read it for yourself!

Other Examples of Worldbuilding Done Right

I also admire the worldbuilding of Martha Wells.  I especially loved The Fall of Ile-Rien series from her, which played with the idea of two vastly different peoples: one, the Rienish, for whom wizards and magic were the norm and even used in conjunction with technology; and another, the Syprians, who considered to any and all magic to be pure evil.  Of course, the two civilizations meet face-to-face and are forced into a circumstance in which they must work together in order to survive.

The Death of the Necromancer, kind of a prequel of sorts (from the same author), was also done very well, I think; it was nominated for a Nebula Award a while back.

These may not be the most well-known examples of incredible worldbuilding out there today, but they are some of my favorites because not only are their settings awesome and unique, but they directly contribute to the effectiveness of each story.  In fact, these novels would be entirely different if their settings were altered in any way.

What other good examples of striking settings can you think of?

Not all novels will have settings that especially stick out to the reader, but sometimes you come across ones where they do.  Also, worldbuilding does not necessarily have to involve creating a new world from the ground up.  It could just mean doing the necessary research to render a setting(s) in a realistic way–particularly when the story is set in a real-life location.

With that said…

What are some of your favorite settings from novels?

Movies?  TV shows?  What made them special or successful in terms of the bigger story, in your eyes?

Next week I plan on talking more about the actual process of worldbuilding and different aspects that must be considered–particularly when creating a new world.  (And if you think this is the last time you’ll be seeing psychedelic weirdness from me, think again–mwahahaha!  It’s just one of the many strange things that have inspired the ideas behind my novel.)

The Importance of Setting

9 Mar


From Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Oh look, I’m using an image today–yay!  (Usually I just don’t feel like doing the whole free-image-search-attribution deal.  Indolence!)

Okay, so here’s a thing I could probably lose entire months getting lost in: worldbuilding.

But first, let’s talk about setting.  (Aaaaaawww…)

Setting is important.  It is where your story takes place. (Really?!) It also refers to the time frame during which the story unfolds.  Without setting, your characters, and your readers, have no frame of reference, no context from which a “story” may even be derived.  No grounds for constructing a meaningful experience upon.

Place.  Time.  Context.  Together, they help to create story orientation.  (I just got this image of a Captain Planet-like team putting their superpowered rings of storytelling together in a big circle, declaring, “Concept, plot, character, setting, theme…Story!” [Insert bubbly, make-believe theme song here.])

Setting can be as ordinary as a barber shop somewhere in a post-WWII American town or as outlandish as an alien planet where gargantuan, mobile, carnivorous plant species coexist with the indigenous lavender-skinned humanoids with sweat glands that secrete a natural repellent, making them inherently “unappetizing” to their feisty plant denizens.

Of course, perhaps for your protagonist that little barber shop doesn’t seem so ordinary anymore after he inadvertently (it seems) discovers a small, odd-looking chest hidden beneath some floor boards, locked by a key of unknown whereabouts and origins; and perhaps those flesh-eating plants and that lavender skin are just as commonplace as the next pebble on the ground, though not so common as that new, benevolent yellow plant species that suddenly popped up in the forest this morning and seems to respond, out of tentative interest, to only one humanoid native in particular.  It all depends on the perspective of the characters you choose and the plot they’re involved in.  All these things are dependent upon one another.

And that is the beauty of story.

However usual or unusual your setting may be, I firmly believe that it must be unique to the story being told.  If it doesn’t make a hill-of-beans difference whether Mary discovers herself in Plano, Texas or on the Moon, then perhaps that writer has got a bit of story-soul-searching to do.  A setting that does not participate with its characters, plots and themes, or has no connection to the other elements of the story, is just an inconsequential place setting at which the writer may be left alone to dine.  And maybe you don’t believe this to be true in real life, but wouldn’t you say that in every great story all things happen for a reason?  That nothing–no detail of setting or plot or character or anything else–is ever left to chance?

Think about it.  Would Jane Eyre’s story be the same if it were set in modern-day England?  Would the tales of Jedi Knights be nearly as epic were they placed on a single planet during a time in which space travel was not yet possible?  I should think not.

It’s All In the Details

In my current WIP the elements of earth, metal, wood, water, fire, air and aether/void play a tremendous role in the overall color and flavor of the story.  Not only are they the categories for elemental powers used by some of my characters but also personality types.  I’ll use word associations that are evocative of the elements to describe my characters, according to whichever element I’ve linked them to.

For example, my protagonist Voi is linked to the element of air.  Her entire way of being, even some of her thought processes, mimic or relate to the characteristics of air–a passion for air travel, for example, and a tendency towards flightiness, even a fickle and child-like nature.  Now, not everything she does is filtered through this one element, however, because people in real life aren’t one dimensional like that, but I do make it a point to carry out the personification of the elements through my character’s actions.

(I definitely think this has the potential to get pretty hokey and cliché, depending on how it’s done, but that’s something I’ve had to work out in my own writing style.  The popular axiom of “show, don’t tell” is probably the easiest way, I think, to avoid this trap.  Showing Voi fleeing from situations rather than conveniently narrating the fact that she is, in fact, a sylph-like creature prone to capriciousness.  And so on and so forth…)

If God is in the details, and the author is virtually a story’s god, then why would he leave the setting (or any other story element, for that matter) to chance when ultimately he is in control?  Though, you also know what they say about the Devil fitting somewhere in there, too, so the moral of that story is: It’s not easy playing God for a day, or 365 of them, or however many days it takes you to write a novel (because let’s face it, this is what writers essentially do when they write, isn’t it?), though if you care about writing a quality story, then you’ll give every ounce of it its due amount of attention to detail.

Perhaps you are thinking now, “That’s some high talk…coming from an amateur.”

Look, I’m not saying I’m some master at all of this, ’cause I’m not.  Like any other art form, I think learning to tell a story with attention to detail is a continual practice, though I think it is important to do so and it is something I am actively pursuing to the best of my ability–barring the fact that I am not (yet) published.

[Obligatory Hiatus]

All right, all right, so by now you’ve probably realized that I like to write loooong-ish posts.  I’ve already written like a three-part series and just decided to chop it into pieces.  (Did I tell you that my manuscript at this moment is sitting at just under 200K words?  Um, yeah…I am seriously considering labeling it as an “epic fantasy,” at this point, though I’m not 100% sure if it belongs there.)  I’m verbose like that, and I really can’t help it.  Apparently, I’ve got a lot of freakin’ stuff to say.

I understand that people generally need to eat large beasts in small bites, though, so tomorrow I’m gonna post the rest of my thoughts.  (I don’t really want to get into the habit of posting in Parts I, II, III, etc. like I have already, twice, ’cause oddly I don’t really feel I have that kind of privilege.  Couldn’t exactly tell you why.)

But since we’ve come to this hiatus now…I’ve got some questions for you!

How important is the setting in your current work(s) of storytelling art?  How is it connected to the other elements of story–your characters, themes and the plot itself?  Is it something that’s more of a background element, or is it one of those things you want to showcase?  (Neither is it necessarily good or bad, I don’t think, though I am curious.  It probably depends a lot on your genre, too.)

Writing an Experience

2 Mar


Sorry I’m posting this one so late.  My internet has been all wonked out for half the day, making me run around like a headless chicken, but it’s all good now.  We’re back in business.  (Though, technically, I did still post this on Wednesday. ;))

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You know, I just kind of realized a couple of days ago that the folks over at Night Bazaar are actually posting on the very topic I planned on covering this week: Setting & Worldbuilding.  (They even announced it like a week or two in advance on their sidebar.)

I totally forgot about this.  I was gonna put up a picture of the local mountain here and everything, telling you about how it inspired me and whatnot.  But it looks like Courtney Schafer beat me to the chase.


All right, well I don’t wanna look like a copy cat (and an amateur one at that), so I’ll wait ’til next week to do it.  I don’t think it really matters, though.  Still, I find it amusing.

Why I Love Worldbuilding (or creating make-believe places to escape to)

Okay, so ever since I was a little kid I was creating things from scratch: paper dolls and magical creatures coordinated to accompany board games I made up; piano and Noteworthy compositions; elaborate Barbie fashion shows complete with pre-show news broadcasts, galloping horses and half-time entertainment… No, I’m serious.  (I’ve got a video of it, but haven’t figured out how to convert it from the cassette to a computer format yet, dangit.  Maybe I’ll post it when I figure it out, heh.)

I mean, this was THE event girls in my neighborhood looked forward to each year.  (I only did it twice, but trust me, everyone was excited about it–including my parents.)  Everyone got involved.  It wasn’t just a show; it was an experience.

I guess you could say I was a kid that really, really loved to exercise her creativity.  I still do; I’m majoring in interior design, for one, and am writing a novel.  Both of those things take major creativity to pull off.

If I had all the brains, money and time in the world I would equally pursue music composition, interior design and novel-writing.  But life currently demands I stick to interior design and finish the one novel for the time being, so I digress.

Okay, so…what do interior design, music and Barbie, for heaven’s sake, have to do with writing a novel?

A lot, actually, if you’d care for me to explain.

With interior design, the goal is to present a client with a solution to whatever issues they are having with an existing space, or to present solutions for a yet-to-be-constructed interior.  The “solution” must serve the client’s functional, health, safety and aesthetic needs.

That is no small feat.  (People generally think that interior design just means making things look pretty, but trained, certified designers actually have to know how to implement building codes, among others, into their projects as well as how to present their ideas clearly via floor, electrical, reflected ceiling etc. plans using either hand or computer-aided drafting (CAD); hand drawings/sketches; materials boards; and/or computer software for presenting documents and 3D imagery.  The methods used are dependent upon the project and client types.

One of my instructors–an architect, actually–would go so far as to say that the interior designer has to become a psychologist of sorts; not only do many people not know what they want, but they can sometimes bring some…unwanted emotional baggage to the table that the designer would much rather not deal with.  The designer, then, must diplomatically sort through all the vagueness and extra stuff, figure out what people really want, and then exceed their wildest expectations.

Oy.  I think I’ll try a martini for the first time now.)

/unnecessary digression.

Ultimately, the interior designer is the visionary that coordinates an interior space that will shape the user’s overall experience while using that space.

The same can be said for a music composer; they create soundscapes that immerse the listener into an audible experience.  (Starting to see a pattern here?)

Even Barbie can be used to create a memorable experience.  (You’ll have to trust me on this one. ;))

They Say You Should Write What You Know

I see this advice out there a lot, but frankly, I feel like I don’t know that much.

I’m 22.  Do you know how many published fantasy and authors are younger than 28, or were when they published their first novel?  Probably only a handful.  (I can only think of Christopher Paolini, author of Eragon, and Sam Sykes, author of Tome of the Undergates, off the top of my head.)  All my favorite authors are in their 30s and beyond, so these guys are going to have a few life’s experiences under their belt.

As a young writer, I find this kind of intimidating.  Compared to these guys, what do I know?  I mean really.  I’m not a professional and I can’t really say I’m an expert at anything other than, well, how to be me.  So what gives me the right to write anything worth reading?

Well, here’s how I’ve come to look at it: sure, I have hobbies and things I’ve been involved with.  I’ve got my near bachelor’s education.  And I’ve got my own life experiences, people I’ve met and interacted with… and that’s about it.  That is all I know.  But even in this there is an abundance of emotional experiences I can draw upon for my writing.  I also have a vast imagination.

I think I’ve chosen to write fantasy for these very reasons–because I believe I am capable of creating an emotional experience by taking others to a place they’ve never been to before, by introducing them to a character who experiences something none of us will ever have to, or get to.  Depends on how you look at it.

But maybe that’s all “write what you know” really means, is writing from what you know not necessarily experientially, through certain kinds of actions, but through emotion.  Connecting with readers on an ordinary, human level, even when your story’s world is extraordinarily alien.

I believe that is my goal.  (I just now decided to have one beyond satisfying my imagination, heh.)

So Give Your Readers (and yourself) Something to Experience

If there’s one thing I know I can do, it’s creating an experience.  When I write I do my best to achieve this, and I do this by focusing on my characters and their world.  I approach storytelling from a psychological standpoint–how certain things, ideas and people make my characters feel and react; how they show unspoken sentiments using body language and other social cues, etc.  (I’m fairly interested in this kind of thing.  I think you can infer a lot about a person by just watching and listening–truly listening–to the words they choose and how they choose to use them.)  For me, I’ve discovered that the story will naturally unravel from the players I’ve place on the giant board game that is the novel, though for other writers it’s sometimes the other way around.

You know, that little rant on interior design wasn’t such a digression after all.  There are a few things I can pull out of that which are relevant to writing.  When it comes down to it, I think most [edit: fiction] writers write for themselves first and for others second.  (I don’t know of anyone for which the reverse is true, but it’s a big world and I’m an introvert, after all.)  So then, like a designer must do with their clients, I challenge thee fellow writers with these three tasks:

  1. Sort through the vague stuff until you find your story;
  2. Figure out what you, as a writer and a person, truly want; and then
  3. Aim to exceed your wildest expectations.

This is pretty much what I’m aiming for now as I edit.

Ultimately, I am my own client, for now.  I do what I can on my own to craft a unique, hopefully memorable experience that maybe, just maybe captivates someone else, somewhere.  Somehow.  But maybe it won’t.  Maybe I’m not even writing something that will sell.  I know that only peer editing, reader’s reactions and submission to agents or publishers will tell me how my work is received, so I’ll have to let you know how that goes once I get that far. 🙂

(As tempting as it is to show people my work now, in the past I’ve learned that (1) unfinished, unedited work is subject to change, and (2) a faithful reader can only put up with so many of your “changes” before he gets tired of reading your work oh-so faithfully.  Being the somewhat capricious, slow writer that I am, I won’t ever again put a reader through this, as it is not a pleasant experience.)