Category Archives: Believability

Bring Your World to Life with a Map

As writers, we hear a lot about the importance of world building. This is especially true of fantasy, and is pretty much required for epic fantasy. It also is helpful in other genres, such as sci-fi or westerns. Building worlds is a multi-layered endeavor, and done properly results in a rich and varied setting that can be so compelling that the setting can essentially become another character.

One of the best ways to start down the path toward such a compelling setting is to start with a map. Maps force you to make decisions about things that will, or should, have direct impact on your characters’ journeys both figuratively and literally.

How far apart are the different areas your characters will travel? How long will it take them to get there? Will they have specific travel needs? What is the terrain like? Will they cross mountains, sail across seas, encounter impossible-seeming obstacles? Creating a compelling map is as much a creative endeavor as writing the story itself. But it does exercise different skills than writing.

There are excellent map creation tutorials on the internet. I’ve played around with some of the techniques, and used some of the programs. Long before I drew my map for my debut War Chronicles novels, I was drawing maps by the notebook-full for my role-playing adventure gaming sessions.

This article isn’t going to cover the technical details of map making though. Instead, I want to focus on the part of map making that is frequently overlooked and under-appreciated. Even the most beautifully rendered and creative map won’t help your story if all it does is lay out the landscape. For the map to be as useful to you, and as compelling to your readers, as possible, it should present your world as dynamic and alive. So how do you do that?

Here is what I do after the terrain has been laid out and rendered, more or less in the order that I do it.

  1. I work out the drivers of the world’s economies. That is driven by very basic decisions about things that are not immediately visible, but drive the evolution of cities, nations and geopolitics. These include answering the following questions for each area of the map:
    • What crops are grown?
    • What minerals are available?
    • What is the climate?
    • What is the seasonal weather?
    • What are the obstacles to easy travel?
  2. Next, I work out the location of the major cities. That is based on the following questions:
    • What proximity to navigable trade routes?
    • What is the population density of the area?
    • What will the climate and weather allow?
    • What technological level are the inhabitants?
  3. Then I work on the religions of the world, asking the following:
    • What are the major religions of the world?
    • Where are they based?
    • What are their religious teachings and dogma?
    • How powerful are they?
  4. Then I work out the geopolitics, based on more questions:
    • What are the natural boundaries based on terrain?
    • What sort of political system controls the area?
    • How do trade goods move through the world?
    • What is the history of each nation?
  5. Finally, I focus in on the current time, and ask the following questions:
    • What are the current political squabbles?
    • Which nations are allied with each other?
    • Which nations have long-held relationships?
    • Which nations are at war, and why?
    • Which nations care about the current wars, and why?
  6. And finally, I use all the above information to create what I call the “Movers and shakers list.” Which answers the following questions:
    • Who are the rulers of the dominant nations?
    • Who are the forces behind the thrones?
    • Who are the business leaders, and what are their goals?
    • Who leads the religious organizations?

In the end, my “map” ends up as a singular diagram, and a pile of notes describing each area individually, and what are the paths that people, goods and ideas travel in the world.

These notes are not generally large and complex. A few sentences answering each of the questions above is usually sufficient. Then, as the story is unfolding, I can use those notes to inform the narrative, providing logical rationale for why two cities are in conflict, or why a rich merchant wants to hire mercenaries, or just about any other question that needs to be answered to drive the plot forward in a plausible manner, which simultaneously peels back more and more layers of the world for the reader. Also, as the characters travel from place to place, I will know what sort of culture they are encountering, what local dynamics drive the behavior of the local populace, and who they need to seek out, or avoid, to be successful in achieving their goals.

Wouldn’t it be cool if…?

One of the funnest elements of a story can be setting. One of the most dangerous questions we can ask ourselves starts with, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?”

Here’s my story:

In putting together my Mankind’s Redemption series, I placed my characters in far away star systems and then had

to ask myself, “How did they get there?” Time travel? For colonization, not likely. Generation ships? Most likely. Easy-peasy, right? But then, for every cool element I added to their world, to the aliens’ worlds, to every scenario, I had to ask myself the traditional reporter questions of what, when, why, how, and where. It got complicated, fast. The Mwalgi species dwell on a hot, toxic planet that lacks water and what they have is largely contaminated. Cool, right? Even more amazing, it orbits a red dwarf sun with a sister-dwarf-sun in a binary orbit. So their suns orbit

around a central point, swinging each other around. Cool, but complicated, and it added a lot more research. I learned a lesson. Sometimes these amazing, interesting settings are worth it, and sometimes you might want to consider what you’re getting yourself into. Knowing what I know now, would I do it again? Probably. It is cool, but I might have toned everything down just a little bit so I could spend more time writing and a little less time on plausibility and research. Just an FYI, this series is a Galactic Fantasy so I have some wiggle room in the possible but highly unlikely sector. For hard sci-fi, you have to really know your science and accuracy is key.

When I started my next series, Legends of Power, I set it in Kentucky. I went there, took pictures, did research, and restricted most of my “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” questions to the magic system. I spent almost as much time researching reality as I had in researching scientific possibility. Hmm, not what I expected. Was it worth it? Absolutely, and if you ever get to Bowling Green, KY, I highly recommend Chaney’s Dairy Barn. Best ice cream I’ve ever had! (And some really cute cows.)

In The Number Prophecy, I set the books in a world with similarities to our own but significant differences in history, geology, religion, and sociology. So much fun! I get to explore so many aspects of humanity. Did I research any less? A little less on the physical setting, but so much more on all of the other aspects of my world and it’s people.

The moral of my story? No matter what you do there must be research. Everything is cool, from the craziest settings in your imagination–I’m thinking of a world where metal flyswatters hit you in the face every time you have an idea–to the most mundane, adorable, town in the midwest. Embrace it, enjoy it, and let the setting live as much as your characters. Give it equal, or possibly, even more attention that your protagonist. An interesting setting is the backdrop of interesting characters, interesting plots, and interesting conflicts. Put in the time to make it breathe and never be afraid to ask “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” Just make sure you’re prepared with a good answer.

Colette Black Bio:
Author PicColette Black lives in the far outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona with her family, 2 dogs, a mischievous cat and the occasional unwanted scorpion. Author of the Mankind’s Redemption Series, The Number Prophecy series, and the new Legends of Power series, Colette writes New Adult and Young Adult sci-fi and fantasy novels with kick-butt characters, lots of action, and always a touch of romance. Find her at www.coletteblack.net

 

 

Building Epic Worlds

J. R. R. Tolkien famously created entire languages and histories as part of his creation of one of the greatest world building exercises in all of literature. Even that wasn’t enough to satisfy his desire to create a complex and vibrant world. He used those languages to create unique poetry and songs, which he then translated into English as part of putting the Lord of the Rings on paper.

Frank Herbert had reams of notes detailing the history, economies, royal house intrigue and genealogy of a “world” that was far too epic to fit even onto one planet.

Is it necessary to mimic their herculean efforts in order to create immersive, believable worlds for your own story?

No, it’s not. Certainly you don’t need to create entire languages.

But it can be helpful if your readers wonder if you did. And that might be easier than you think.

One of the more consistent compliments I get on my War Chronicles novels is on the depth of world-building. I made a determined effort in writing those books to create an epic feel, not just for the character story arcs, but for the entire world. Not just for the story’s time, but for thousands of years into the past. Not just for the physical geography, but for the spirituality and myth.

Sometimes less can be more. In that story we encounter an ancient empire, one that is tied to the current story through a thread that traverses millennia, and will likely continue on into the future. To create the sense of an ancient empire that was palpable and relevant to the story, I wove that empire into the story whenever I could, in the most natural ways I could devise. But I didn’t write a hundred page treatise on that empire, I didn’t create languages.

What I did, was to have the empire be remembered in the land itself. The great mountain range dominating the main continent is named after that empire. Ancient structures dot the landscape. Terms are woven into the language of the townsfolk, idioms and proper names woven together even through dialog.

The illusion all this brings forward is one of an ancient empire, so powerful that its great works of art, science and architecture are still the pinnacle of culture and technology. Bridges and temples not only still exist, but some are still maintained and revered by their descendants.

The same approach works for geography and biology. A little variety, consistently applied, can create a compelling sense of distance and scope. As your characters move through the world, change the details of the local flora, fauna and terrain. New sights, sounds, even smells can delight or disgust your characters, which flows through their eyes and into the minds of your readers. Smell, in particular, is a very powerful memory aid. If you can associate a place in your book to a smell the reader recognizes and has a strong emotional response to, you can almost guarantee that place will stand out in their mind as they read it.

Finally, one of the most powerful ways to give a sense of world-ness to your story is to weave these different techniques together. Flowers can be associated with ancient rituals. Tolkien almost literally wove his history into his scenery. Think of the Dead Marshes, The Old Forest, Fangorn forest, Lothlorian… each place unique, each place memorable, each place as much a part of the myth and folklore as it is a part of the physical geography.

Once you start thinking about the story this way, opportunities to use these techniques will appear as you write, or as you edit.

Home As Setting and Theme

When my debut novel, Sleeper Protocol, was released in 2016, many of my childhood friends, family, and even my teachers commented about my use of “home.” Where I call home is a long way from where I live now, but every time I’m there the feeling of peace is as palpable as wrapping a blanket around my shoulders. I was born and raised in upper east Tennessee in an area called the Tri-Cities. My family actually lived very near a small community known as Midway – it was Midway between Johnson City and Tennessee’s Oldest City, Jonesborough. The Appalachian mountains filled the eastern horizon, running in a roughly southwest to northeast line. It’s a beautiful place.

And I never intended for my story to go there.

As the story of a cloned soldier trying to find his identity unwound from my brain to the keyboard, I initially struggled with “What’s the point?” or even Eric Flint’s famous guidance of “Who gives a $^#@?” I needed something to make the character’s emotional struggle hit home and that’s where the inspiration hit. So, I took my character home. In the third act, he descends Cherokee Mountain, crosses the Nolichucky River, and ends up on a small knoll where a farmhouse once stood. All of those are real places and the knoll is where my family’s homestead still stands. My cousins own “The Farm” as we call it, and it’s wonderful to know that it’s still there and open for my family to visit any time we want. That openness and warmth led me to bringing my character to an very different emotional level. I gave him a sense of place, a sense of a home that he’d once had and was very different than the future one, but a place he could identify with fully and embrace his identity. Once I’d opened that door, I proceeded to move him further along the path by having him stand over his own gravesite in the Mountain Home National Cemetery.

The journey to find his “home” was really the key to unlocking his identity. My first ideas to bring him through familiar territory to help with my description and emotional resonance gave way to something else entirely: a theme I’d never intended. Our sense of home is a large part pf our identity. Even our home nation, or state, or municipality is much more than a common bond to our neighbors. We identify ourselves to that place forever. No matter where I go, when I am asked where I’m from I always say that I’m from Tennessee and just happen to live elsewhere.

My point is this – write about your home or wherever you consider your home to be. Pull that emotion and identity into your own writing. Your voice will improve, your characters will seem more grounded and real, and your readers – especially those who claim the same sense of home – will keep asking for more. When you’re not writing about your home? Put that same warmth and emotion into the characters who are there. It makes a difference to the story and to your characters.