Category Archives: World-building

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.

Realistic-ish Exotic Settings

It seems that anyone who wants to write in the action, adventure, or thriller genres has to have a bazillion air miles on their cards in order to fly out to all of those exotic locations, write that section of the story, and then jet off to the next locale. What if you want to write about those places but don’t have the means?

There’s a couple of things you can do.

Wing It and Make It All Up

Yes, this is an option. You can set your mutant giant ant story in Nevada, and they all die because they’re allergic to saguaro cactus. The problem with this is saguaros live in the Sonora Desert in Arizona.

Winging it will require a lot of research for almost everything you want to do in your designated setting — if it exists in real life. Should you set your tale in a world made of cheeses and populated by naked mole rats, you’re free to make up everything to your heart’s content. The one thing you will need to do is make sure that once you set a rule you follow it, just like the laws of physics on Earth. If your characters have to keep one foot on the ground else they float off towards the ever-present giant hungry mouth floating in the sky, they can’t ever jump for joy or fall off of a building.

Whatever rules you develop, you’re stuck with them. If you change things mid-story, your readers will be irate.

Limit Your Story to Somewhere You’ve Lived

If you happen to be a former military member (thank you for your service), the spouse of one (also thank you for your service), or even a military brat that visited and/or lived in different countries, congratulations. You should have enough background to write a story with the general look and feel of that locale.

There are a few caveats, though. You’re familiar with that area for a specific time period. If I wanted to write a story about Brooklyn from my time living there, it would be from the late nineteen-sixties or -seventies. That’s the ballpark swath of time my memories are based on. If I wanted to have two characters meet at Elaine’s Avenue M Deli, that wouldn’t work for a 1970-era tale. Elaine’s started their business in 2001. People who are familiar with that area will know this and it will knock them out of the book.

You could always make up an establishment, but make sure you’re vague enough that people can’t say, “Oh, that’s where DiFara’s Pizza is. He’s been there since 1965. Also known as one of the very best places to get a pizza in the galaxy.”

Beyond the businesses and buildings, the overall look and feel of places change over time. What you remember as a gritty blue-collar area might have been gentrified, slowly filling up with hipsters and people with sculpted beards drinking Starbucks through a straw. If you still know people from the old neighborhood, get them on the phone or drop an email asking them to tell you how things are these days. It gives you a good excuse to call your old Uncle Johnny and Aunt Grace and chat for an hour, assuming they’re not late for a Groupon appointment offering buy one, get one free skydiving lessons.

Oh, and for folks who don’t think Brooklyn isn’t an exotic location, try visiting it. Besides, it’s the capital of the known universe and the place to go when one wants the best pizza.

Google Street View

This is one of the best things to help authors since instant coffee. While it doesn’t cover the entire globe, it will certainly do a decent job of letting you know what most places look like within the last couple of years.

If you want to virtually be in an Eagle’s song, you can go stand on a corner in Winslow, Arizona. In fact, there is a park dedicated to that very activity, including a statue. In some shots, you may even find a flatbed Ford.

Now it is possible to walk (or drag your cursor) through places like Prague or Berlin. If you want to describe your spy running through the Palazzo Poggi Museum at the University of Bologna, Italy, you can describe dashing through the doorway between the sculpture of a nude woman and a human skeleton.

Travel Books

While geared more towards tourists, picking up a Lonely Planet or Fodor’s travel guide can help you to bring some realism to your exotic settings. If your budget is limited, you can always visit your local library for the latest copy or pick up one from a year or two prior from used bookstores or a library sale.

These guides give you a good flavor of each area, discuss some of the unique qualities and places hidden within each locale, and sometimes include iconic things to do and see. People who live there or have visited will certainly remember Damnoen Saduak Floating Market or the giant maze that makes up the Chatuchak Weekend Market just off of Phahonyothin Road. It’s easy to get lost in there, and an excellent spot for your spy to ditch the folks following her. The extensive descriptions will help you to get the feel of the place and fire up descriptions of all senses.

Just Google It

In the end, you can just give Google Search a shot. This is probably the most used method authors use, so you may end up missing out on the spots that are off of the beaten path. Try to dig into reviews of places to get visitors opinions. Maybe the museum is nice but it smells like fish because of the cannery next door. Those little details will help to solidify the setting with your readers, especially folks with the travel experience.

After all, it may help you to properly plan the extermination of that giant radioactive ant problem your characters have if you shift them so they’re standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona.

 


 

About the Author:DeMarco_Web-5963

Guy Anthony De Marco is a disabled US Navy veteran speculative fiction author; a Graphic Novel Bram Stoker Award® nominee; winner of the HWA Silver Hammer Award; a prolific short story and flash fiction crafter; a novelist and poet; an invisible man with superhero powers; a game writer (Sojourner Tales modules, Interface Zero 2.0 core team, third-party D&D modules); and a coffee addict. One of these is false.
A writer since 1977, Guy is a member of the following organizations: SFWA, WWA, SFPA, IAMTW, ASCAP, RMFW, NCW, HWA. He hopes to collect the rest of the letters of the alphabet one day. Additional information can be found at Wikipedia and GuyAnthonyDeMarco.com.

 

When Your Setting is a Wild Card

Normally when you establish a setting in a story you only have to do it once. Unless some cataclysmic event happens, it’s not going to change enough to require another description. Huzzah! But what if your setting isn’t a clearly defined place? What if it’s more…well, this.

 

Okay, so your setting might not be the Dark Dimension but it may be like The Demos Oneiroi I created for The Moonflower in that it’s less of a landscape and more of an abstract concept given physical form. The Demos Oneiroi is the dream world of the Ancient Greek gods and since it’s quite literally the stuff of dreams it can be anything and everything all at once. A place like this, one that can change on a whim, can be hard to explain. Describing it with enough detail to get the point across without overwhelming the reader is a very tricky thing to do. It’s like doing a paint by number except all the numbers are imaginary.

The way I handled it is to treat the setting like an unreliable narrator. I established early on that the setting can and does change on a whim and that it’s perfectly normal for the abnormal to happen. If a lush forested park suddenly turns into zombie Jimmy Hoffa’s waterpark from hell, it’s all good. The reader doesn’t have to panic or re-read the previous page to figure out if they missed something. They can roll with it and get in the line for the giant octopus tentacle slide.

I hope I didn’t lose anyone there. I realize saying “do this tricky thing by treating it like another tricky thing” is not the best explanation; especially if you don’t know how to create an unreliable narrator. Don’t worry. I’m not going to leave you perplexed. It’s not quite as scary as it sounds and I promise, you don’t need to make a bargain with an otherworldly being to do this.

Dormammu, I’ve come to establish setting.

Since I keep throwing Doctor Strange references into this let’s use that film as a starting point. (Spoiler alert.)

In this acid trip on film we see multiple worlds, not all of which obey the same laws of physics that ours does. Besides blowing Stephen’s mind, it’s also establishing in the minds of the audience that there are many strange place the story can take us. So when Stephen does go to the Dark Dimension at the end of the film, we’re not shocked by it — especially since we’ve already seen weirder locations.

How do you create that on the page? In order to write an abstract setting you have to approach it in pretty much the same way that they did in the film. Start out by describing the setting as it is in that moment to create a base line. Then either through dialogue or a bit of exposition establish that things in this place aren’t necessarily what they appear to be, and that they won’t stay as they are now for long. It’s important to let the reader know that it’s gonna get a bit weird so they aren’t taken by surprise. A shock like that will knock them out of the story before you get to the really good stuff. After you’ve prepped them for the coming shift that’s when you can make the unexpected appear. How you do that, you may ask? Well that’s up to you. My favorite way is to have an inexperienced character encounter a shift in the landscape while accompanied by a more experienced character. The experienced character displays their knowledge and saves/helps the less experienced through until they’re back at a safe spot. This way I get to let my landscape live up to its potential while advancing the less experienced character’s development. Later in the story I can have them on their own, facing the same dangers — or worse — in that same landscape and it’s more plausible that they’ll survive.

It’s okay if it takes a few revisions to really get it to work well. It is a tricky thing but the freedom it gives you to create and be original makes it a lot of fun. Plus, a setting like this never gets boring. Bonus!

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