Category Archives: Suspension of Disbelief

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.

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.

As Much Weirdness as Will Hang Together

Me again! A bit earlier in the month, I spoke about one of my favorite authors, Daniel Abraham, and what I believe constitutes the “special sauce” that separates his writing from that of others.

Now, I’ll be subjecting you, dear readers, to my analysis of my own writing. It tends to grow from seeds. I say “seeds” in the plural rather than the singular because I rarely begin a story with a single idea. A single interesting idea is generally not enough (for me at least) to build a story upon. I’ll file the idea away (writing it down if I’m smart) and wait until another, totally different idea, strikes me. If I find that this second idea is challenging–but not impossible–to merge with the earlier notion, a strange kind of resonance begins and my inspiration module kicks into gear. One thing builds upon another builds upon another and on and on they snowball.

That’s how two disconnected ideas:

  1. A race of beings imprisoned in a miniature replica of an entire world
  2. Cities built into the bones of mountain-sized monsters

merged to create the world of Unwilling Souls. These two ideas had, initially, nothing to do with one another. They wouldn’t hang together as-is, so they required tweaking.

Who was this race of imprisoned beings, and why had they been locked away? I decided that these were the gods, locked away in a human-built prison after a failed attempt to exterminate humankind. And the prison itself, rather than simply being a replica of the outside world stored in some fantasy version of the Indiana Jones warehouse, was in fact carved into the very core of the outer world. Prisons require jailers, who require a place to live. The center of a planet is not terribly comfortable and is rather full, so I envisioned a hollowed-out space surrounding the prison-core itself, the magma of the mantle held in check by magic of immense power. In this hollow space, the jailers would live and work, protecting the surface world above from the gods that had sought to destroy them. These jailers would be blacksmiths of a sort, for since the core of an Earthlike planet is made of metal, metalworkers would be needed to maintain this prison of the gods.

So where do the giant beast-bones come in, and why do people live in them rather than building normal cities? Well there were normal cities, it turns out, before the gods began their war against humankind. But in the last gasps of that war, as they realized they were going to lose, the gods summoned up great beasts of truly mind-boggling size (for a real-world comparison, these would laugh at kaiju, chowing down easily on any iteration of Godzilla you can think of). These beasts went on to all remaining cities as well as most of the world before humankind rallied and killed them in turn. Then, having little else to base rebuilding their civilization, they turned to the bones of these beasts and used them as foundations for their new homes. Being magical in nature, the bodies lingered on well past when they otherwise would have. They also retained some other … interesting properties.

So there we have it. A setting chock-full of weirdness that nonetheless hangs together coherently. Or at least, my definition of coherently. What? And incidentally, I’ll be hosting the blog in July for an entire MONTH of good stuff about setting, so stay tuned!

But setting is only part of a story, and worldbuilding alone is not enough. It’s characters that drive a story, after all. And in a world this strange, I wanted characters who were grounded in believable (if larger-than-life) behaviors and personalities. The first story I conceived of for this world was a short story (serving as a prequel to the novels) based a little on one of the oldest there is: Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed lovers. Larimaine and Cassia mine were called. Because Larimaine’s ancestors had opposed the gods in the war and Cassia’s had joined with them, their relationship struggled to bridge an almost endless societal divide. (Also, Larimaine wasn’t nearly good enough for Cassia). They don’t work out, of course, being star-crossed and therefore tragic (but not, like, DEAD tragic) by nature.

I write this way, with pieces finding odd connections to other pieces, because I find great joy in it. An individual idea will rarely spark my interest enough grow into something lager. But as multiple ideas start crashing around together, they bring out nuances in one another they could never have achieved alone. Finding these connections, finding ways to make them all fit together like puzzle pieces from different sets merging to form a picture both impossible and utterly believable is what keeps pulling me back to the keyboard. I’ve always been fascinated with how the world works, with how pieces of science and society and behavior fit together.

Writing fantasy is, at its core, simply a way of determining how a world works. It’s a secret sauce tasty to both myself and, so far at least, my readers!

About the Author: Gregory D. Littleheadshot

Rocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (all right, during) classes. His novels Unwilling Souls and Ungrateful God are available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through Amazon.com. His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens, A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology, and Dragon Writers: An Anthology. He lives in Virginia with his wife and their yellow lab.

You can reach him at his website (www.gregorydlittle.com), his Twitter handle (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.

 

Research Until Your Fingers Bleed

This month the Fictorians are focusing on posts about what we, as authors, believe sets our work apart, or at least, what we believe makes our writing more authentic and compelling. In other words, what is our “special sauce?”

I’d like to think there is more than one thing that I do which gives my writing authenticity and makes it worth reading, but there is one thing I have done that seems to surprise most people.

My first epic fantasy series is set in a stone age culture, and the protagonist is in training to become a “flint-knapper” which is a person who creates stone tools. In fact, one of those stone tools, a knife, is one of the most important artifacts in the story. His skill with a bow is also critical to the story line.

When I started writing the story, I rapidly came to realize that I was having trouble writing scenes that revolved around stone age technology. I wanted to bring the reader into those scenes. I wanted those scenes to reveal the protagonist’s persistence, his struggle to master his craft, and eventually his talent and pride in creating the tools that his village needed to survive.

So I did “research.” I searched for every article or paper I could find on the ancient art of flint-knapping. I watched videos. I purchased stone arrowheads and spearheads at flea markets. Like these:

But even after that, I never really felt like my scenes reached that level of authenticity I wanted.

So I set out to learn flint-knapping myself. Luckily there was a little shop on my way home from work that sold rocks. So one day I stopped in and looked around. I got to talking with the owner, and eventually told him that I was an aspiring author who wanted to learn flint-knapping. His eyes lit up, and an hour later I left the store with a cloth sack filled with about twenty pounds of rocks. It turns out that making stone tools requires different kinds of rocks, plus some other tools, like antler tines or something similar. It looked sorta like this:

Then I set to work. I spent an hour or so after work and on weekends for weeks, bashing rocks together on my patio. It was a slow, painful and painstaking process, just to learn how to strike a blank with a hammerstone in the proper way to break off a suitable chunk of obsidian to START to make an arrowhead or spearpoint. And learning that took a toll on my fingers and thighs. Eventally I got some thick pieces of leather to protect my thighs and clothes, but there was really nothing you could do to protect your hands and fingers. If you wanted to make stone tools, especially arrowheads, spearpoints or knives, you were going to cut your fingers and hands.

And the cuts were not simple scrapes or splinters. Obsidian has been used to create scalpels for eye surgery because the result of a well-aimed blow will create an edge that is, literally, sharper than a razor. So those cuts bled copiously. My leather thigh protectors were soon stained with blood. This is a pretty good example of what that looked like:

I won’t pretend that I ever mastered the art of flint-knapping, but I did get decent enough to be able to make functional tools. But more importantly, I learned enough that when I returned to those scenes, the writing came from a natural understanding of the mechanics of the craft, as well as the risks.

“Write what you know” they say. Well, in this case, that’s what I decided to do. And I think it paid off in spades.

So, my fellow authors, when you need to learn something to make your story believable, research it, baby! Research until your fingers bleed!

Mine did.

(No, I didn’t make this. But this is what the knife in the book is modeled on. This was made by a professional flint-knapper, and is an example of what a skilled artisan can do with stone. My wife and daughter had the sheath custom-made for the knife. It’s a pretty cool combo.)