Category Archives: World-building

The Semi-True Story

I gave a copy of Fossil Lake: An Anthology of the Aberrant to my parents with a proviso attached: it’s not autobiographical.

fossilThe assumption would be easy enough to make. My contribution to Fossil Lake, the short story “Mishipishu: The Ghost Story of Penny Jaye Prufrock,” is set at a summer camp for kids. The name of the camp in the story, Camp Zaagaigan (the Algonquin word for “lake”) is fictional; so is Lake Mishipishu (I actually checked on the maps and found a Mishibishu Lake…) My parents, however, would be able to name the real camp and the real lake after they read the story: from the cabin line to that infamous H-dock, the layout of Camp Zaagaigan mirrors its real-world counterpart, and they drove me there often enough to recognize it.

From there it’s just one step further to wondering how much more of the story is real.

I’m often asked whether the characters in my story are “me,” or whether the events are “real,” and all I can ever say is that I write semi-true stories. Semi-true in that I’ve never been able to take a person, event, or revelation and transcribe it into fiction word-for-word. As a writer friend of mine says, real life doesn’t have to make sense, but fiction does. Even if I’m starting with something “inspired by a true story,” in order to make event or character coherent, I have to add things here, or take things away that might have happened in real life, but don’t add anything useful to the tale I’m telling. Sometimes changes to the story make it more dramatic, more compelling, or more satisfying; and so the events “inspired by a true story” move ever farther away from a faithful reflection of reality. After all, I’m writing fiction—I’m not required to report on reality. I’m required to tell an engaging and powerful tale.

And semi-true in that I do my best to write characters who feel real: who behave in realistic ways, who are recognizable and relatable, who are emotionally honest. When I write them, I put myself in their position and see the world through their eyes; and yes, to an extent, I feel what they feel, and try to express that emotion in the words I’m writing. Often this emotional connection is informed by my own real-world experiences. I do know what being bullied feels like. I do know what doing something I know is against the rules feels like. I don’t know what it feels like to drown, but I do know what it feels like to not be able to breathe, so I write about that…and imagine one step farther, based on research and my own ideas. These characters aren’t me, but they have pieces of my emotions inside them.

So no, I was never bullied at that summer camp you sent me to, Mom and Dad. No, I never snuck out of the cabin after hours. No, I was never a suicidal twelve-year-old, and no, I’ve never lost sight of the line between reality and imagination.

…or at least, I’ve always found it again in time.

About Mary: 

Mary Pletsch is a glider pilot, toy collector and graduate of the University of Huron College, the Royal Military College of Canada and Dalhousie University. She is the author of several previously published short stories in a variety of genres, including science fiction, steampunk, fantasy and horror. She currently lives in New Brunswick with Dylan Blacquiere and their four cats.

World Building in Dark Fiction

Guest Post by Pamela K. Kinney

Whether your tale is set in a real place or an imagined one, you need to establish your characters’ world so that the reader can suspend disbelief and fully engage with the story. Not only horror, this includes from science fiction and fantasy. There must be reasons why a character or a whole slew of them reacts as they do in their world. Their actions, their thoughts, the reason they fall in love or hate someone, why they kill, every bit of their reactions comes from how their universe revolves. World building determines the place your characters live in.

Pamela K. Kinney - Paranormal Petersburg - Web72dpiWorld building is the process of constructing an imaginary world. World building in horror and dark fantasy often involves the creation of a back-story, maybe history, geography, ecology, supernatural creatures, and people for the novel, novella, or even a short story. The short story will consist of a scene unlike the longer novella or novel. This can be lesson from a sentence to a paragraph’s worth of world building.

The more differences to the mundane world you write into your plot, the more the writer should focus on getting those details right. Set them so they almost fade into the background, and that way, the reader will focus on the characters and the story. There is no need to info dump those aspects of the world right away in the first chapter or two.

It is not just the big details the writer should worry about, but those small things that can escape attention. Small details sharpen the world. Think of a movie. You have the main actors. But you also have the extras, or background as they are called in the movie business. You’re thinking, “No, extras aren’t that important, not when your hero or heroine are the real focus of the story.” Take a look at a haunted house story, It’s not just the humans who are stuck in the building and trying to get out. The house itself and the ghosts are the extras or background. All this makes your story a more rounded one.

Be consistent in your world building rules. Keep them as you delve deeper into the story. Once the manuscript is done, editing will help in catching these kinds of mistakes. I have files on all my characters in my stories, adding their traits, what they do for a living, and much more. This keeps straight my characters and the world they exist in. After all, if what you’ve written goes against any of the rules you’ve created in your world, then there has to be a logical, rational reason, reasonable to you, but most of all, to your readers. Such as if iron is poisonous to the fey, but suddenly later in the story, the character can touch a fence of iron, there must be a reason why they can do this at the time (maybe they had found a spell that enables them to). Don’t just have them unable to do something because it isn’t convenient to your story. Being consistent is what makes the suspension of disbelief your readers are willing to have if you do it right.

Your world’s historical past should not overwhelm or dominate your current story. If it does, then you will bore your readers, most of all, you’re writing the wrong fiction. A paragraph of it is all you need.

When writing fantasy, building a world that is extraordinary and vivid is often the heart of the tale, even the dark world of a horror novel. The stranger that fantastical world is, the more important it becomes for the author to create a reality that readers can relate to and make them feel part of it. Throw horror into the equation and now the writer must add a visceral component into the mix. When it comes to horror, Hell might be the world the writer is building. Don’t just stick to the physical horrors. Develop the emotional and psychological plight of it. For horror is about the emotion; the fear you want the reader to feel as they read. This would flesh out the horror world; make it 3D and not a flat world.

Magic is not only in high fantasy, but it can used be in dark fantasy or horror. Look at George RR Martin’s Games of Thrones—magic is as much a part of the frightening elements and monsters as the noble families plotting to kill each other are. There’s a reason tropes like magic is evil and black magic exist. Take deals with the Devil, or human sacrifice. Look at the world that JK Rowling built. How dark this young adult fantasy grows as it progresses, to more horror than light fantasy.

Now, get out there and start planning the world of your scary story. One that will raise the hairs on the back of the reader’s neck.



About the Author:

Author of Haunted Richmond, Haunted Richmond II, Haunted Virginia: Legends, Myths, and True Tales, and Virginia’s Haunted Historic Triangle: Williamsburg, Yorktown, Jamestown, & Other Haunted Locations, Pamela K. Kinney has written fiction that enables her readers to journey to worlds of fantasy, go beyond the stars, and dive into the vortex of terror. One of her stories proved heart-stopping enough to be runner up for 2013 WSFA Small Press Award. As Sapphire Phelan, she also writes bestselling, award winning paranormal romance with dark heroes and heroines with bite!
Find out more about her at her websites: and

About the Book:

Travel to Petersburg, Virginia, and the surrounding areas of Colonial Heights, Hopewell, Prince George, Dinwiddie, and nearby Ettrick-Matoaca, Enon, and Chester to discover what spirits, monsters, UFOs, and legends await the unwary. Why are the Union and Confederate spirits still fighting the Civil War in the battlefields? Who is the lady in blue who haunts Weston Plantation House? Learn what the phantoms at Peter Jones Trading Post will do to keep from being photographed. Drink tea with runaway slaves still hiding on the top floor above the Blue Willow Tea Room. Are Edgar Allan Poe and his bride still on their honeymoon at Hiram Haines Coffee and Ale House? Why does the Goatman stalk young lovers? Meet the ghosts of Violet Bank Museum that greet guests at the house. Hauntingly active as they share space with the living, the dead refuse to give up their undead residency.

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.