Category Archives: World-building

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

 

 

I am vengeance! I am the night! I am a fluid and moldable setting that changes to match my protagonist!

For my second post this month I’d like to take a look at one of my favorite settings in all of media, Batman’s hometown of Gotham City. The angle I’d like to focus on is how writers and directors have used Gotham over the years, changing it like clay and sculpting so that the city is a reflection of the hero who protects it.

As Gotham changes, so does Batman. It’s more that just a fun exercise- -I think there is a lot here that we as writers can learn about using our settings to better frame our characters.

CONSISTENCIES OF THE SETTING

Let’s first take a look at four elements that stay consistent about Gotham in most interpretations:

The first two are somewhat trivial – Gotham is almost always shown as a coastal city in someway, and it is always located northern enough to get snow. The first one I suppose is to allow good waterfront scenes (and sell Batboat toys), while the latter allows you to have fun winter holiday issues.

The other two are more significant, and I think both tie to unchangeable elements of the Batman character.

  1. Gotham City is always represented as a very large city, both in population and geography.
  2. Gotham City is ridden with crime

I find these two very interesting, as I think they are interconnected to create a setting where Batman is a necessary element. Gotham is consistently depicted as a New York level city, in terms of population. This is as opposed to say Portland, Maine. We’re not talking about a hundred thousand people, Batman protects a city of millions of people. In a smaller city or a less crime filled one, Batman might have a chance at actually winning his battle. But Gotham City is too big and too filled with crime and corruption. One man could never win his war against crime here, which makes Batman’s quest to do so all the more compelling and tragic.

He fights a war he knows he can never win, and will someday lose.

So with those consistent elements in check, let’s look at how various media has played with the other components of Gotham City, and how those changes in the setting are there to reflect the version of Batman that protects it.

BATMAN – TELEVISION (1966)

The narration for this television show lets you know from the very beginning. Gotham is a “fair city”. Wayne Manor is “stately”. Of all the takes on Gotham, this is by far the nicest. It’s even daylight outside for most of the shots! With its blue skies and clean streets, this Gotham reflects its Batman perfectly. There is no brooding Dark Knight here. This Bruce Wayne is a fairly happy person; being Batman is a mission to him, but not a curse or burden as it is in most other takes.

It is also worth noting that this is the most generic looking of the Gotham versions I will cover. Other than Wayne Manor and Police Headquarters there are no iconic exterior locations, which gives the city a ‘everytown’ feeling. 

BATMAN – FILM (1989)

One of the primary challenges that faced the Batman movie in the 80s was washing away the image the public had of Batman a light and silly character, an image largely built by the television show I just mentioned. Director Tim Burton and his team gave us an extremely dark and fantastical city, which again reflected the much grimmer hero that protected it. While the television show depicted a Gotham that could be any city, Burton’s Gotham City could exist nowhere but in this film. It is seemingly always night there, everything is poorly lit and the architecture is gothic and grim. The setting of the movie is working hard to sell the change in the character before you even see him.

I find this to be the most hopeless and lost feeling of the Gotham Cities I’m reviewing, and its pairing with Keaton’s Batman is ideal.

BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES (1992)

Batman: TAS shares a lot of production aesthetic with Burton’s film. It is a very grim place where it is again nearly always nighttime. One thing about this setting that is different though is the strong art deco design elements that are married to modern technology. Airships fly overhead while people get out of vintage cars only to type on modern computers. It renders the setting with a feeling of being lost in time, which again is a spot on representation of this series’ version of Batman. Bruce Timm and the production team of this series cherry-picked components of the Dark Knight’s history to show a Batman that was not from one era, but from all of them. The setting here helps to sell that message.

BATMAN BEGINS (2005)

One of the initial conceits of Batman Begins was that this was a ‘real’ movie, in that this was supposed to represent a take on Batman as he might exist in a real world, as opposed to a comic book one. To help sell this, director Christopher Nolan and his team bring us a Gotham City that looks like a real city, really for the first time. There are a few fantastical elements, such as the Narrows and a city-wide monorail system, but those are the aberrations. You see real cars driving by real buildings- -cars that look nothing like the ones in the Animated Series and buildings that would never be mistaken for the dark gothic churches of Burton’s film.

The message here is that this Batman is real and not a comic book character, the movie altering the setting to help sell that to the viewer.

SUMMARY

Obviously there’s a lot more I could mine here and I made more than a few generalization, but my basic point stands. Your setting can just be a place your characters walk around in, or it can tell the reader something about your characters. A good setting will subtly reinforce the message you are already trying to send your reader, teaching them something about your protagonists even as they move around inside it.

See you next time… or should I say: same Fictorians-time, same Fictorians-channel?

Perhaps not.