Tag Archives: World Building

Tools for Creating Your Own Mythology

In yesterday’s post we asked if it was possible to create mythology and why, as writers, we need to. In this post, I’ll talk about some of the tools I use to build mythology.

The truth is that our rational minds want to and need to rationalize what we cannot control. We need to make sense of the paradoxes and the unexplainable. It doesn’t need to be far out – it can be based on pagan principles (survivalist on Maslow’s hierarchy*), technological environment (Robert J Sawyer’s trilogy, Wake, Watch, and Wonder in which hte world wide web wakes up. Although doesn’t tackle the question of myth creation directly, it makes a good case for a developing a myth based in technology). In a world of proto-people, vampires, werewolves, zombies, revenants and the rest, how do your characters view their own origins and existence? How do the humans view them? Are these proto-people like mythological figures to the humans?

The starting point is to look at the geography, the world that your characters inhabit. Is it a harsh environment like the poseidonpolar ice cap, low gravity of mars, void like the moon, rich and abundant like Tolkein’s Middle Earth, or is it an urban setting on modern? Whether it’s an alien on/from another planet, ancient peoples, futuristic people on space ships, a post apocalyptic world (in Hunger Games they lived with the mythology, the “gods’ who determined whether they were chosen to die) you need to know your environment and then determine how your characters will respond to it.

So, what challenges will your protagonist face based on where she lives? How does her environment affect her and those around her? Most importantly, how does she make sense of what is happening around her? In my current work, a fantasy with historical overtures, the ancient civilization lives on a volcanic island. Rules, conduct, religious practices are all based on keeping the God of Thundering Mountain happy so he doesn’t erupt. When He rumbles, then the Magic Master is in trouble. Throw in the Earth Mother and her goddesses who have been upset since the God of Thundering Mountain arrived. Now the world is rife with possibilities. Of course, we don’t get to see the God and Goddesses interact, we know the tension exists between them through the interactions of the High Priestess who serves the goddesses and the Magic Master who serves the god. Throw in some commerce-based political drama, a murder and a foreign kidnapping and all actions in this new mythological background are bound to blow up – literally and figuratively … especially when we learn that the God wants to be incarnate so he can walk the world and rule it.

So you can see how this mythology developed from the environment. First, by determining the geography, the time period and the level of technology. Then there’s the interpretation of that world by its inhabitants which then determines how people act and react. But let’s talk about technology for a moment. In the time period I’m working in, 2000 BC on Crete, archaeologists discovered that the Minoans had developed some basic, actually very sophisticated, astronomy.

The cool thing is that the constellation we know as Orion’s Belt, was known to them as the Double Headed Axe. That’s all we know about it – not even why they saw it that way. Isn’t that the most exciting piece of information a writer can have? I mean, it’s the perfect symbol in the book! When it pops up, all sorts of things are going to happen! And, I’ve even mentioned that for one character, the double axe looks like it’s slung on a belt. That modern reference draws the astute reader further into the mythology because there is now a ring of truth, a familiarity to it. So even basic technology and information can tell us a lot about how people interpreted their world and how they would have reacted. Most importantly, it can help us create that mythology with a deeper meaning rooted in basic survival.

The thing to watch for is not to assume that the current value systems we hold, religious, political, economic and law enforcement systems we adhere to are the same for the characters in your book. If they are, that makes for safe, dull writing unless you’re writing a great emotional drama in that specific environment. The purpose of writing is to entertain, to challenge readers with new thoughts and perspectives. Readers want to understand and experience the world you are delivering. Even if it is set in modern day, they want to read about those who rightly or wrongly challenged the status quo, became the hero, went on an epic journey mentally and physically. And the easiest way, to my mind, is to do that by developing a new mythology for that makes it a fun and safe way to deal with paradoxes.

I’ll share one more tidbit with you. On Minoan Crete, they had tholos tombs where bodies were put to rot before the bones were placed in pithos jars. Cool, eh! So the basic questions are, why? What did this mean? How does it relate to their world view and what’s happening? My answer was that the Earth Mother, who helped give them life needed to feast on the flesh of her children to welcome them back into her womb and her world. The bones remained so people would remember their connection to their ancestors and the Earth Mother. What’s your interpretation? Go, delve into the world you’re creating. Look closely through the eyes of your characters and let them tell you how they see it. You never know what great mythology lies in that first inkling of an idea!

*for more information on Maslow’s check out my post: http://www.fictorians.com/2011/10/17/valuing-your-characters-or-maslow-for-writers/

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Just a small reminder to not forget about Monique Bucheger’s Book Bomb today! You can now get 30 ebooks by participating, 19 free and 11 at $.99. Go to Moniquebucheger.blogspot.com for full details.

Creating Your Own Mythology

Creating your own mythology – how cool! And loads of fun! We write in an era where readers embrace modern and new myth. When Bram Stoker penned Dracula, he took an obscure legend, gave it its own rules and a new mythology was born. Today, we understand the social action and values for vampires, werewolves and zombies. This is newly created mythology has been embraced by generations of readers. In Tolkien’s books, the fantasy world received a new mythology Middle Earth and that lore, that mythology, is still embraced by people today.

There are those who argue that because myth is defined as being of the distant past, that it has its own cultural criteria Zeusand that it requires organic growth in a culture, that it can’t be instantly created. Humbug! Myth is a way for people to reconcile the paradoxes of life – the things that don’t make sense to us. How was life created? How do the gods and people interact? What are the rules for interaction? Apply it to everyday life and we can call it religion. Apply it to books and we call it world building.

And perhaps that is the difference – scholars will argue that because what writers create isn’t part of the everyday, ordinary belief systems for people, then it isn’t legitimate myth. But who draws that line? Who determines when an idea crosses that line? And does it matter? Is it any less compelling? I think not. We no longer believe in the Greek Pantheon of gods yet they’re as popular as ever in literature like in Rick Riordon’s Percy Jackson and the Olympian’s series. Do we have to believe in those specific gods for the mythology to be relevant, to explain creation, our relationship with the world, our struggle with life’s paradoxes and our need to have legitimate heroes to inspire us? Not at all. When we delve into other people’s belief systems, we challenge and enrich our own. We discover new ways to escape and to solve problems.

Mythology creates rules. How do heroes, people and proto-people (vampires, werewolves and the like) behave? What kills them (silver bullets, kryptonite or a stake through the heart)? Who are the gods, and what are their rules? How did creation happen and what happens after death? Why are their problems? Can man solve them or is he powerless?

We’ve established that not only can we create new mythology we must do it to explain the rules of the new worlds we’ve created. And many myths born of ancient legends and modern science are being created and believed by people (no judgements here). This is the mythology of ancient aliens coming to earth for their own purposes and seeding mankind (biologically and technologically). It is all a way to rationalize, to understand our history, what makes us human and to explain the anomalies and paradoxes of who we are and where we’ve come from.

And where will the next new mythology arise? The future. Outer space, I think. With the newly emerged and proven theories of space and time and the universe expanding faster and faster (not more slowly as some would believe) to end up in a black hole that swallows it entirely – like how do we explain that? Mythology, that’s how. A futuristic mythology born of predicted apocalyptic events. How cool would that be?

In creating the mythology for my books, I look closely at the world I’ve built along with the premise of the story. Mythology is about explaining how things came to be. Why they are the way they are. Why people believe as they do. It’s answering these questions that makes a world unique and believable. In one series, I asked what makes this one item so valuable? Why is it such a threat? How did it get where it is? What happens now that it’s been loosed upon the world? What do people believe about the item and their power to change destiny?

In the historically-based fantasy series I’m currently working on, the creation and afterlife myths mythology are crucial to how this world acts. The problem is, there is very little information about societal beliefs for the time period I’ve chosen to write about and I’ve been scouring academic journals for months. And that, for a writer, is perfect! From minute tidbits of factual information on tools, trade and astronomy, I’ve got just enough information to ground the story in history yet enough leeway to create a whole new mythology as to why things were done the way they were. This has forced me to really see the world through my characters’ eyes and in doing so, their actions and reactions have a genuine truth. And in doing that, the story has become so real, so alive and so fascinating!

You can take more modern or current historical events such as the decay of an empire, an evil despot trying to conquer the world, invading armies, geological tragedies, interpersonal tragedies, whatever you wish – take these larger events and change the details of the experience. Create a new world, a new way of looking at things, a new mythology which your characters use to explain their circumstances, their world, why the scourge seeps through the country – use all that to create and influence your hero, your proto-humans and your society. Or, take one of the ten basic creation myths, put you own spin on it and ask yourself, how would this influence a given society? Again, Rick Riordon did this in his series when he brought the Greek gods to America. Neil Gammon has his own unique spin on mythological figures come to the Americas in American Gods.

So go for it! Create new worlds with ground breaking, mind bending mythologies. There’ll always be a flick of our modern realities and value systems in them, how can there not be? Besides, those bits of our world in them is what will make the issues, the dilemmas and the challenges ring true for the reader. Mix, mash and have fun with it.

In tomorrow’s post I’ll talk about how I create new mythology for my worlds.

Happy mythology building!

Preparing for Productivity

We’re writers, so we write, right? Absolutely.

But that’s not all we do, and honestly the actual writing of a manuscript is far from the most time-intensive part of creating a novel. In fact, the writing of a viable manuscript is the culmination of a great deal of preparatory effort. We might spend months working on a story before we sit down to write that viable draft.

That final manuscript is like a beautifully crafted building we hope will stand firm for ages, so it must be built upon a firm foundation. Few people visit any architectural wonder just to say, “Wow, great foundation.” Most of us have eyes only for the finished product. Leave it to the architect to know all about the foundation.

Same principle with writing. A great foundation allows a manuscript to reach its full potential. Careful preparation allows a writer to pound out tremendous word count. For example, just yesterday I wrote about 13,000 words. During one writing retreat this year, I wrote 50,000 words in one week. And they were good words, not throw-away fluff.

So, can I write 10,000 words a day, every day of the year? Of course not. Those kind of word counts are not possible unless you’ve already got the foundation set. Much time is spent preparing for those burst of productivity. I’ve discussed those burst-writing times in detail in the past here.

What are some of those foundational items we as authors, the architects of our stories, need to understand? What are ways we can prepare for productivity? The specifics of the list will vary depending on each writer’s style, but regardless of how we get there, we still need to end up with a firm foundation, or the story will fall.

Some common items that apply to just about everyone writing fiction include:

World building. What is our setting? Where is the story taking place? In what environment, what culture, what physical reality? Are characters human or animal or robot or jelly beans? Until we know these things, either written down or firm in our minds, we cannot begin a viable draft.

I write fantasy, and I generate copious notes about the world, the nations, cultures, religions, geography, climate, magic system, value systems, etc. Until it’s real for me, I cannot make it real for my readers.

Characters and conflict. There is no story until there is a conflict. For a conflict to exist and to matter, we need to have characters to torture. Before we craft scenes that will capture readers and draw them into the story, these elements must be clear.

One thing I do at the beginning of a story is to generate a list of names I feel fit this project. In my YA fantasy novel, I chose Scottish names for one nation and German names for another. Behind The Name is an excellent site to find names. Then when I need a name, instead of losing productivity trying to invent one, I just turn to my list, choose a name I’ve already decided will work in the context of this story, and move on with hardly a pause.

For those who are planners, who like to outline and craft a story before sitting down to write that viable manuscript, the list of preparatory items gets a lot longer, including:

Timeline sketches. Particularly for complex stories with multiple characters, charting out the timeline and how the various POV threads will interact can be invaluable. Even if you only have one main character and one main protagonist, the exercise of plotting out when and how they’ll intersect over time can spark new ideas or identify holes in the planned plot.

For me, this helps particularly in complex endings. When tons of things are going on and the action jumps from one POV to another, and from one quick scene to another, weaving all of that in together into a tight, constantly escalating climax is daunting. A high-level timeline sketch keeps it all under control.

Character profiles. Who are your characters, what is their backstory? What do they want? Why can’t they have it? What are they going to do about it? Knowing all this for every main character, and even for important supporting characters provides fodder for tremendous depth and complexity of your story.

Character development and depth has been a challenge for me, and this exercise has helped tremendously.

Outline. How is your plot going to roll out? What scenes will you write to drive the story forward? How exactly will you generate empathy for the hero in the beginning, reveal the true conflict at the first plot point, illustrate the stakes, etc? For planners, the outline is the skeleton, the frame upon which you build the story. This is where great energy and time is spent as you explore all the possibilities.

My outlines keep getting longer. This is where I spend the bulk of my creative thinking time. It’s so much easier for me to explore different options and look for ways to ratchet up tension or stakes or conflict up front than it is after I’ve written 50,000 words and realize something is missing.

For those who prefer to free-write, to discover their story through the act of following the muse down the rabbit hole, the preparation process is more like exploring the back roads around your city at night. There’s a certain excitement to driving into the darkness, not entirely sure where the road will take you. The trip may take a lot longer then expected, you’ll take wrong turns, and have to back track. You may end up needing to return to the very start of your trip and begin anew.

For those free-writers, or pantsers as they’re often called, the early drafts of a story are like those late-night drives in the darkness. This is where you discover the story, just as a planner discovers their story through the outlining process. This effort can take a great deal of time, and through this process, the free-writer is building the foundation of their story. Once all of the necessary elements are in place, only then can the free-writer begin a viable draft that can stand successful.

This list is not exhaustive, but it’s a good place to start. Writers must think about it, particularly as we begin a new novel. Understanding the foundation we must build, regardless of how we choose to get there, is one of the most important things writers need to grasp.

This knowledge, and understanding how we individually approach the foundational elements in our story, allow us to become truly productive. Once we have these elements in place, we can dive into that manuscript, and the words will flow faster than we can write them. I type pretty fast, but sometimes I can barely keep up.

I started as a free-writer, and over time and as I’ve come to better understand these foundational requirements, I have slowly drifted across the spectrum to becoming more of a story planner. I free-write within each scene. This hybrid approach, which I think is fairly common, provides the most focused, most productive result for me while still allowing for some of those midnight drives.

How do you approach these foundational elements in your own stories? What other foundation blocks would you add to the list?

 

The Great Spring Migration

The spring migration is late this year but I only learned that because someone died.

A close friend’s death pulled me from my concrete world, forcing me to travel across endless prairie, to see spring repaint winter’s stark world with the tender greens waving away the north wind’s last cold breaths. And in my journey to mourn, I see the spring migration – gathering energy to fly to thawing northern nesting grounds by fervently feeding on the last crop’s stubble, not one stray seed left behind. A friend had died and with her, part of my heart died yet here was nature, hopeful, fervent, telling me the cycle must continue, that despite all that happens, life stops for no one.

This journey takes me back to the farmstead home where I grew up – right in the middle of the great spring migration. Flocks of Greater and Lesser Canada geese, cranes and Snow geese formed feathery swarms. Circling gracefully down to water, then like arrows shot into the sky they circle yet again searching for perfect feeding fields.

The choruses of honks and krooos carried by cool spring winds are a music once familiar, now alien, to my ears. These choruses are the excitement of spring, the energy of rebirth and creativity and somehow, through my tears of grieving, I am stilled to peace.

A walk across stubble fields, still too wet for seeding, floods me with memories, once known in my youth but now seem otherworldly. Who was that person who remembers where the trees once grew, where cattle grazed in pastures, where weeds were pulled from garden rows at a nickel a pail? Who is this person who now deigns to wear sandals through straw stubble, ankles scratched – a child of the city now – alien worlds converging, lifetimes past and present merging.

Walking along a windrow, a prairie chicken is spooked from the grass. My partner is now lost in his memories of times hunting before pesticides and farming diminished this delicacy. As we share the past I realize that few words can bring to life the images, the memories, the smells, the aching muscles, the laughter accompanying sliding down haystacks in winter … time has made the once familiar foreign. The migration darkens the sky above us as birds swarm debating if this field will yield enough scattered grain. I feel the noisy migration sweep my old ghosts away for their focus is on today – it is all that matters and all that ever will matter.

At 4 a.m., the winds change and I know, lying in the dark, protected from the diamond sky and sun’s first yawning, that it is time – that this is the last night of honking and krooing wakefulness and that silence will ensue. I leap from my bed to watch the geese and cranes, their last grazing of grain speckled stubble fields completed, rise to the skies, circling, a choir in flight, summoning all to follow, their v-shaped lines flapping arrows aimed at northern nesting grounds.

Then, the earth gasps at the timeless glory of the final migration before relaxing with a sigh. But, the silence I expect never comes.

Instead, I hear the almost quiet – the earth’s soft belches and burps of spring moving to summer. Frogs croaking bass melody day and night, the percussion of duck calls, crows cawing oblivious to the frog’s melody, the crescendo and decrescendo of wind whispering then whistling through budding trees – the new, softer melodies of insects crawling over warming ground, farmers preparing the land for seeding, hoes working gardens. The south wind, carrying the frenzied migration northward now blends these spring choruses to new compositions.

Ah yes, the rhythm, the balance of the earth, timeless beyond man – these things I now ponder. And I also wonder about the worlds I create as I now sit in my walled home, in my city of concrete and asphalt and unearthly noise. Do my characters wander through worlds which gasp, belch and burp? Are they aware of the subtle things which affect their lives? Am I aware of these things? Maybe. Maybe not. But I now know that sometimes we and our characters need to take the time to breathe – to feel the change, to feel the sorrow and the timelessness of life.