Category Archives: World-building

Orbit Xplorer

A guest post by Doug Dandridge.

I was going to write a post about Ginger, a software program that helps writers find errors in their manuscripts. However, Ginger changed their interface to the point where it does not do all the stuff this writer was going to rave about. So on to something else.

I write very detailed military science fiction, and I like to get things right as much as I can. I’m sure I miss, but not from a lack of trying. In the bad old days, I had to do everything by calculator and graph paper, but now the internet supplies the tools to really get down into the dirt of astrophysics. There are a lot of programs out there that do a good job of simulating different types of orbital systems. Programs like Universe Sandbox and others. I love Universe Sandbox for simulating where asteroids are going to be at any given time in the future. For detailed orbits of simpler systems, enter Orbit Xplorer by Ottisoft. At $25 for a single site license the program, for all it can do, is a bargain.


Orbit Xplorer comes with a number of preprogramed simulations, a star visits the sun (bad), double star (cool), Kepler’s laws (educational), two colliding stars (also really bad, but cool as well). While useful, I found the simulations I could program to be much more useful, and I will give three examples below.

I wanted to work out Hohmann Transfer Orbits for a book idea about Mars. Hohmann’s use a least fuel curving orbit to put a ship into Mars orbit from Earth, and can only be accomplished over certain timespans. But for the book I wanted to see how much of a boost I could use to take days off of the transfer. Using the program and trial and error I found the optimal boost to achieve a least time transfer, and discovered that any boost after that just sent the ship flying out into the outer solar system.

The second example was working out the orbits for a book that was to be the lead volume for the second Deep Dark Well trilogy (which has been written but not published). The idea was that ancient humans had moved stars and planets into place, then put terraformed moons into orbit around some of the closer gas giants. The program allows the user to put whatever objects he wants in orbit around each other, setting the mass of each body as well the distances of the orbits. Again, it’s a trial and error process, and at some close distances the moons fall into the gas giant. I set up a situation where all of the terraformed moons were as close as I could put them, so that their days (which are the same as one orbit around the gas giant) would be of reasonable lengths, none more than fifty some hours or so. When I ran the program, everything orbited well for about fifty evolutions, as which point one moon curved in, hit another moon, and both collided with the gas giant (very bad), while one of the remaining moons was pulled out of orbit to go careening through the outer solar system, there to freeze (bad as well). Oops. Eventually I got it to run a thousand cycles without a disaster, and went with those orbits, which gave me the day night cycle of the moon of interest to the story, as well as the cycle at which phases of the other moons would be seen.

The final example is from my Exodus series, which has been called by some readers as a new level of worldbuilding. I won’t even go into the central black hole with eight stars in orbit around it, all with their own system. One of the systems I wanted as accurate as possible was the two Earth mass planets in orbits around each other, the capital world and it’s twin. Both were habitable, and I also wanted the capital planet to have a terraformed moon in orbit. So I modeled the two planets in orbit around each other first off, with the one parameter being that the day night cycle on both worlds would not be longer than about forty hours. Anything longer might cause problems with the earth like vegetation on the worlds. That was easy enough. I had two beautiful planets that each had a bright world in the sky in one hemisphere at night, and experienced daily short lived eclipses on their day sides each light cycle. The worlds were about ninety thousand kilometers or so apart, which would make each world many times larger than our moon in the sky of the other. I then added the moon, and found that it would orbit the one world at about ten thousand kilometers in a slightly elliptical orbit. I ran the simulation about a thousand cycles, and everything seemed to hold together.

One of the coolest things about a science fiction setting is how different we can make them. Planets in orbit with each other around a center of gravity, moons in orbit around larger planets. Multiple star systems. One of the coolest things I found about Orbit Xplorer was how it sparked the imagination, suggesting setting I wouldn’t have otherwise thought of. Setting can be another major character in your work, the more imaginative, the better.

Guest Writer Bio:
Doug DandridgeDoug Dandridge lives in Tallahassee, Florida, where he has worked as a full time writer since March of 2013. A graduate of Florida State University and the University of Alabama, and a veteran of the United States Army, Doug has been in love with the fantastic since an early age. He has over twenty-five self published books on Amazon, and has a half dozen novels that have reached the top five in Space Opera in the US and UK.

Researching it Old School and a Little New

researchLouis L’Amour talked to every “old timer” he could find so that he could accurately portray how folks used to live in the old west. Nowadays most writers just turn to the Internet.

There are great, insightful websites that offer a virtual experience and allow us to get into the minds of our characters. For example, I was writing about a space station built on the planet Mercury. Using computer software I was able to visit Mercury and see what Earth looked like from her surface. In the right rotation, Earth and her moon looked like two bright stars. This detail added a nice level of authenticity to my story.

A couple years ago, I was researching my family history and came across a gentleman that I may or may not be related to (I still can’t figure that out) but his story is a great one. Commodore Joshua Barney fought in the American Revolution and was one of the first to serve in the continental navy.

I decided to write his amazing coming of age story (and am nearly complete with this endeavor). Though at the time, I hadn’t a clue about ships and sailing in the 18th century. So I turned to the Internet.

Wikipedia is alright for double checking a reference, not hard fast research. But I perused its site first to get some direction.

YouTube offered some interesting videos on ship replicas from that era and I was able to glean some insights into sailing such a vessel. But even the replicas have been modified with gas engines and motorized rudders, so how authentic could that be? Most of the cabins have also been modified to accommodate the 18th century luxuries we now consider necessities like running water and flushable toilets.

I gathered twenty or so books from Amazon on sailing in the 18th century and other period pieces. The first thing I noticed is that folks back then didn’t talk like we do today. Keeping to the historic dialect would probably be more authentic, but I would most likely alienate my middle-grade readers in the process. So I drifted from authenticity in that area and hoped to make up for it in my research of the sailor life: food, sleep, hygiene, and so on.

I went to an antique mall and purchased a few model ships from the 18th century so I could get a feel for their look, dimensions, and layouts. This helped me gain a better prospective than just looking at photographs.

IMG_6211After reading the Amazon books and playing with my model ships, my head was swimming in information, but I really had no way of knowing what was worthwhile and what was rubbish. So I booked a sailing expedition on an 18th century tall ship replica (now referred to as a yacht). I was able to feel the experience, see it, smell it, and taste it. This made it easier to convey sailing in my writing. But I still lacked some aspects of the ship life.

My next research adventure came by surprise. I was visiting Collette Black’s Desolation book signing in Half Priced Books and wondered if they had anything on sailing. I was able to browse dozens of helpful books and elect the ones that were most specific to my project, at a great price. That is something you really can’t do on Amazon. I even found a book that discussed trekking through the Alps during summer in the late 1800s (something that my protagonist did at the age of fifteen in the late 1700s).

David Farland said that I needed to visit the Alps to convey the experience like I had with sailing. I’d love to, and don’t doubt that my writing that particular chapter would be much more convincing and insightful if I did, but I’m going to try writing the chapter from my research first and we’ll see how it goes.

So sure, researching has gotten much easier with the Internet, but researching it old school is still necessary to add levels of depth and authenticity that virtual experience has yet to duplicate. My experience on Mercury would no doubt be a drop in the bucket to what I might actually experience if I travelled to the planet (and lived to tell about it). Bottom line, there isn’t any short cuts. Even a fantasy novel on a made-up world still requires huge amounts of research to capture the reader. Good research facilitates better writing.

jace 1I live in Arizona with my family, wife and five kids and a little dog. I write fiction, thrillers and soft sci-fi with a little short horror on the side. I’ve got an MBA and work in finance for a biotechnology firm.I volunteer with the Boy Scouts, play and write music, and enjoy everything outdoors. I’m also a novice photographer.You can visit my author website at, and you can read some of my works by visiting my Wattpad page.

World Building Tools

A guest post by Joshua David Bennett.

World BuildingIn fifth grade, I wrote my very first story about a raccoon space pirate named Bucky. Way before Guardians of the Galaxy, Bucky was breaking new ground for raccoons, flying through space in his minivan with his best friend Raven, looking for treasure.

I was trying to recreate the wonder I had when I first saw Star Wars or read Hitchhiker’s guide.

For better or worse that story is lost to the ages. But thirty odd years later, I still love the thrill of exploring a universe in my own mind.

This month on Fictorians we’re talking tools, with a focus this week on worldbuilding. We won’t be going deep on principles or philosophies in this article. For that, Writing Excuses has worldbuilding episodes that are relevant whether you are designing a magic system, mapping nebulae, or even trying to fill historical gaps in 19th century Paris. Perhaps the best advice from them is to stretch beyond your story’s core characters and conflicts to include everyday details. If you can show how magic and science have affected even the ordinary, your world will be much richer.

The tools below can help. There will be many. Grab a coffee and make sure your browser can handle twenty tabs at once.

Starting Big

Assuming I already have a character and a conflict, my process always begins with setting. Yours may start elsewhere. I need evocative scenery for the characters to play in, and what scenery is grander than the final frontier?

If you’re writing a science fiction, the tools below can help you populate your vast universe with solar systems for your characters to explore. For fantasy, these tools can provide the scientific backing for far stranger worlds than Tolkien imagined.

Universe Sandbox ($10) is a beautiful space simulation program. You can spin the Earth around the Sun at 10x time, restore Pluto’s pride by scaling it into a megaplanet, or add brand new worlds to our system. The upcoming sequel adds even more options, like procedural planet creation, terraforming, and planetary collisions.

StarGen is a free online tool with no graphical flair to speak of, but makes up for it with scientific rigor. Give it a few parameters and it creates a whole solar system of planets, each complete with data on surface temperature, atmospheric mix, length of year, and a dozen other things you might need to know.

For an actual image of your world, turn to Fractal Terrains ($40, Win) or the free Fractal World Generator. Either will generate a random world, but Fractal Terrains will also let you edit coastlines, mountains and islands to your liking. Tweak humidity levels and heat to see different terrains appear. Then let the program apply wind and water erosion, and pretty soon you have riverbeds running through your landscape.


A good map is a wonderful writing aid. I use mine for story consistency, travel times, and to see which keyWorld Building map locations haven’t yet been used in a scene. For a reference map, the only tools you really need to are pen, paper, and inspiration. For inspiration, I highly recommend the Cartographer’s Guild. Here you’ll find amazing fictional maps that can give you ideas for what kinds of details to include on your own.

If you want a more advanced tool, there are several. Campaign Cartographer ($45, Win) and Fractal Mapper 8 ($35, Win) are both fantasy mapping tools for the gaming crowd. Draw out continents and then use the available symbols to add forests and cities. Fractal Mapper goes a step farther and allows you to map building interiors as well.

Gimp and Inkscape are fully featured and fully free graphic programs. The learning curve is steep, but either can create maps, mock up covers, house sigils or anything else you can imagine.

But perhaps the easiest way to get a detailed look at your world is to let a game make it for you. Games like Dawn of Discovery ($10, Win) and Anno 2070 ($30, Win) simulate building and managing a city, in Renaissance Europe and the near future respectively.


Filling your world – Order, Chaos and a little help from friends

World Building population

Unless your story is dystopian, you’ll want to fill those empty maps with life. This can be an enormous task, and it can be hard to know where to start. Fortunately, the fantastic and amazing Kitty Chandler has put together the WorldBuilding Leviathan and the equally amazing Belinda Crawford has created a Scrivener template out of it. In either form, the Leviathan prompts you with questions about your world’s timeline, culture, technology level, economy, biases, taboos, factions, and a dozen other variables. In the end, you’ll feel as if you’d actually lived there.

Sometimes the ideas won’t come, and trying to brainstorm will send you into a glassy eyed stupor. When that happens, introduce some chaos to get yourself unstuck. Seventh Sanctum has a trove of random generators for anything from currency (two Imperial credits) to dragon breeds (Persian Rockstrike), to diseases (the Gray Sneeze) and more. If you’re lacking for a detail to get you out of a rut, this can be just the ticket.

Other times, the ideas come freely, but leave you with more questions than answers. The Worldbuilding Stackexchange is a great place to get general help. When I last checked, the top question was “How to create a nuclear explosion localized to only a few square feet.” We’ve all wondered that. Now you can find the answer.

If your questions are specifically about the creatures you’re putting in your world, the Speculative Evolution forum might be more your speed.

Or, if you are developing your own magic system, Brandon Sanderson’s fansite hosts a Creator’s Corner with people doing the very same thing.


Building a Story Bible

Story BiblePretty soon, you’re going to need a story bible to hold all the details about your world. Scrivener ($40) is fantastic not just for writing but also for brainstorming and storing every snippet about your world.

Personal wikis are another popular option. These act as your world’s Wikipedia, with easy linking between your various topics. You can quickly build a network of articles, complete with tables or inline images. WikidPad is a favorite tool of folks over at Writing Excuses, but I’ve found TiddlyWiki or ZimWiki to be more intuitive. All three are free to use. Whatever your preference, these tools can help you to build a great reference tool for your world.


As enticing as these tools can be, Know When to Stop. Worldbuilding should not be an exercise in filling endless binders with your own private sandbox. Instead, it should always serve to enhance the story. I love the way my friend James Artimus Owen puts it. “We have the best job. We get to create things in our minds that are so amazing, other people are going to pay to know what they are.”

Make sure these tools drive you back to the open page, and to finishing the story so you can share it with others.

Josh BennettAuthor Joshua David Bennett is a scotch lover, history enthusiast, graphic artist, and world traveler. His first novel, Seacaster, is a Caribbean-Aztec fantasy that tells the story of a young man at war with the magic coursing through his veins. Joshua lives in Colorado with his wife and son.

Character Names that Mean Something

Sometimes it’s hard to think of a good name for a character, location, or object. When I first started writing, I would ponder for days, sometimes weeks, trying to find the right name. Once I got on the Internet, though, I realized that the World Wide Web contains all sorts of resources that can make the task of naming your characters (and locations, and McGuffins) easier.

First and foremost is the wide variety of baby name sites on the internet. If I know a bit about my character’s personality, I can search “baby names meaning warrior, baby names meaning beautiful, baby names meaning leader, baby names meaning sorrowful.” I’m often able to come up with a name that suits my character and yet doesn’t sound painfully obvious (hint: if you’re naming your male character “Rad” then you’d better have more to that choice than just wanting to be sure your readers understand that this character is awesome.)

I’ve often wanted a character to belong to a particular real-world ethnicity (including Indian, Polish, Anishinaabe, and Celtic) and had difficulty naming them, because I don’t like to give characters the same names as real-world people I know from those cultures, and I really don’t like making up some nonsense word that “sounds Chinese, Polish, Celtic, etc” as that can be truly offensive. Online resources have provided me with lists of authentic names from those cultures.

Three cautions for baby name sites: as with much information on the Internet, verification is key. It’s easy for someone to say that a name or word means something when it doesn’t, and some names have a variety of interpretations (like my own, Mary, which means “chosen by God,” “bitter,” or “rebellion,” depending on who you ask). Cross-check your source to be sure it’s reliable.

Secondly, consider the culture of the character(s) and the setting of the story. If your setting is a modern medical school, it’s relatively easy to explain a character with a Greek name, a character with a Swahili name, a character with an Arabic name and a character with a Sri Lankan name as co-workers. If your setting is in Steampunk England at the turn of the 20th century, the explanation becomes more challenging. If your setting is a fantasy village and your characters are all natives of the same village, it’s almost impossible to explain why their names are from completely different languages. And while there can be interesting character hooks in, say, the Italian boy with the Pakistani name, or the Chinese girl whose name, translated, becomes a boy’s name in English, it can be confusing at best and insulting at worst if characters have ethnic names, but no other links to those ethnicities. Conversely, if your character has immigrated to a society where there is prejudice against her ethnicity, she may deliberately choose a new name that will be easier to pronounce and “fit in” with the majority of that society—or she may be forcibly given one.

Thirdly, recognize that some names carry pre existing associations. I love the idea of a girl’s name that means “to think like a man”—but the name in question is “Andromeda.” Andromeda’s already a well-known mythological figure and if I don’t want to conjure ideas of constellations and sea monsters in the reader’s imagination, perhaps another name is a better choice for my character.

Google can also be an invaluable tool if you’ve just made up a name that you think sounds really cool. The subconscious can play tricks on us; it’s possible that we might be borrowing a name that we’ve heard somewhere before and not realize it. Do you really want the star of your space opera to be named Luke or Kirk? Or the name that sounds neat to us might be similar to a word that’s embarrassing or offensive in another culture (witness the word “slag”, where the word’s literal definition is waste material from coal production. Sounds like a badass heavy-industrial name for, say, a fighting robot–except that in Britain, “slag” is a derogatory slang term for a promiscuous woman. Oops! And this is why a certain Dinobot has recently changed his name to “Slug.”) When I make up a cool-sounding new alien species, planet, or character name, I always run it through Google to see if it’s already part of some other franchise, or if it has meanings or associations that I didn’t realize.

The World Wide Web can provide writers with all kinds of inspiration for naming characters, places and objects. Search engines also provide a quick and easy way to double-check that the neat and totally original new name you just thought up hasn’t already been used by someone before you.