Thanks to the recent Steampunk Workshop on Romance Divas (which was brilliant btw) I managed to blackmail persuade the fantastic Sarah A. Hoyt to write a guestblog for me. We also discovered that we share a brain have a lot of similar interests – Robin Hood, Musketeers, Swashing and Buckling, Brave New Worlds – preferably those we create ourselves.
Sarah A. Hoyt
I’ve been building worlds as long as I can remember. I started with legos, paper and glue, and – at the beach – shovel and pail. I built houses and cities inhabited by tiny, plastic dog figurines, I built huge sand castle complexes and filled them with imaginary princesses and knights.
It is not that the real world wasn’t good enough, but that it often wasn’t INTERESTING enough. I wanted people doing heroic or silly stuff and, from a very early age, I found the need for a world that my characters should inhabit.
The details of these worlds, particularly as I moved from stories in my head to stories on paper, were harder to establish.
For instance, while I was making stories for myself and enacting them with various materials, no one much cared if I were building elaborate cities to be inhabited by dogs who, lacking opposable thumbs, couldn’t possibly have built them. Turns out readers care more about this than my young self did – who knew?
So I started the long and stumbling road of world building. I never had such bad judgment as to assume that my world didn’t need to be internally consistent, or that I could wave a magic wand and change everything halfway through and no one would mind. No, I always knew the first commandment of world building:
1- Thou Shalt Be Consistent – there shall be rules that are laid deep before you start writing, and to those rules you shall adhere. These rules will pertain to physical location; laws of the world (both physical and legal); the way your character acts.
Others were more difficult to come by. Such as, for instance, the fact that one must read in every field under the sun, till one acquires a reasonable grasp of economics, politics (by which I don’t necessarily mean current politics, but the way humans relate in groups) and the indefinable quality of human society that determines how science (or, mutatis mutandi, magic) moves through and establishes itself in general knowledge. I finally got it and thereby acquired the second law:
2 – Thou Shalt Have a Nodding Acquaintance With Economics,The Natural World and History. This might (just) avoid your having your medieval lord use a plastic toothpick. (Laugh not. Have seen it done by a beginner.)
Of course, once I’d found this stuff, it was like those potato chips where you can’t eat only one. I think my worst self-indulgence in writing-research occurred when I ended up spending seven years researching a short story. It worked to about a year per thousand words. (Thirst, free here ) But even someone with my obsessive personality, once she’d grasped the basics of economics could figure out that this was not a productive way of going about world building. (You can’t make a living from a couple of hundred dollars every seven years.) Which brings me to rule number three.
3 – Thou Shalt Research Enough But Not Too Much. – Hints that you’re researching too much include (but are not limited to): you can best a college professor in a fair debate on the subject; you can correct books on the subject; you haven’t read anything new in the last five books; your pre-school kids know more than college professors about it; all your friends slam the phone down when you say “I just found what really happened in…”
Once you are in possession of the knack for researching enough but not too much comes the figuring out how to write about it, because, you know, no matter how much you know about the world and just have the characters act in it, the reader is going to think you’re nuts. (Or worse, stop reading.) Thus, rule four:
4 – Thou Shalt Clue The Reader In. This has auxiliary rule 4a) Thou Shalt Not Infodump, But Work It In Unobtrusively In Your Character’s Thoughts And Actions and rule 4b) Thou Shalt Not Put In Neat Bits Of World Building That Have Nothing To Do With The Story. (Also known as, if you’re going to spend three pages on weaving techniques, your character better be a weaver and the cloth better be integral to the plot solution.)
And I can hear the bright young ladies in the front row over there crying out: “But I write in the real world.” Ah, no, you don’t. No writer writes in the real world. It is impossible. The real world is too messy, too confusing, too full of conflicting loyalties. Even if you’re writing in a reasonable facsimile of the normal world, you are infusing it with your own perceptions and views. Insofar as the human brain is an implement for creating order out of chaos, what you’re writing might be what you perceive as the real world. But all this means is that you need to examine your perceptions and assumptions, to make sure they make sense to the reader. This brings us to rule five:
5 – Thou Shalt Not Assume That By Writing In The Present Without Magic Or Technological Changes, Thou needst Not Build The World — Make sure your painted scenery looks more real than the street corner it imitates. Kick the columns now and then to make sure they hold up. And make sure you tell the reader what assumptions you’re making. Theirs might not be the same.
All right. You have your world set – or you should. Oh, fine, so you have built the city your story takes place in, and the rest of the world is a big fuzziness you know only through what affects your city. Unless your character is going on a tour of the world, that’s fine. This is all you need. Creating rule six:
6- Thou Shalt Not Get Lost In Caves. This came from one of my early adventures in world building, in which I had a nomadic people who, in inclement weather, often took refuge in caves. My then mentor, who was hardly more experienced than I insisted I should draw a map of all the cave systems, of which you saw one cave – and not even the back of it. When the maps were done, I no longer wanted to write the book. Don’t do that. The caves are not important, forget the caves.
And now we come to the complex part – oh, you thought you were done, did you? – which is how to integrate your world with your storytelling. I’ve already given hints of this above, as in you must give us foreshadowing and hints, but not so much our eyes glaze and we fall asleep on your book. Let’s assume you’ve mastered how to do this and walk the fine line. (It only took me a couple of years, so anyone should be able to do it in that long, and most in less time.) So forget that for a moment and let’s proceed to rule seven:
7 – Thy World Must Have Something To Do With Thy Story — No happy romantic comedy should be set in Gotham, unless, of course, the dark background is played for laughs. Conversely, unless your serious comment on the human condition is supposed to be funny don’t set it on a comedy stage. And if you ARE intentionally doing a bit of tricky work like that, be sure you understand the difficulty. You risk making your story as incongruous as hunters going after ducks with a harmonica. Naturally you can get away with bending the laws of economics and motivation more in a screwball comedy mystery than in a serious, futuristic story.
And that brings us to our next rule. When asked to revise by someone who might pay you, if their comments on your world make sense, you will let go of pride; you will not flatten them with the depth of your research; you will consider the possibility that the readers, also, would have problems with this passage and therefore you’ll heed rule eight:
8 – Thou Shalt Stand Ready To Play Wrathful Deity And Wipe The Slate Clean So You May Start Again, Saving Only That Which Is Worthy.
This, however, brings us to its corollary, rule nine:
9 – Thou Shalt Not Play Insane Divinity And Destroy Thy Creation For No Reason — If the comment comes from a writers’ group member, your mom, your dad or the voices in your head, and has absolutely no backup in either fact or story, you shall not rewrite to suit.
And now nothing remains, but to lay down the final rule. Rule ten:
10- Thou Shalt Build Thy World With Thy Whole Mind, Thy Whole Heart And Thy Whole Faculties — I.e., don’t get so caught up in your characters that the poor things are walking around in grey goo. The characters mold the world. The world molds its characters. You cannot have one without the other.
So, go back, get your shovel and pail, and start work…
Sarah A. Hoyt has created many worlds, real, historical and wholly imaginary. She has published mystery as both Sarah D’Almeida (the Musketeer mysteries) and Elise Hyatt (the Daring Finds mysteries) fantasy under her own name: The Shakespeare series; the Shifter series: Draw One In the Dark and Gentleman Takes A chance. Also the Magical British Empire Series: Heart of Light; Soul of Fire; Heart and Soul. Recently her first Science Fiction novel has come out also under her own name. Darkship Thieves has been on the market less than a month, and is being reviewed as fantasy romance and also as an urban fantasy in space (also, truth in advertising makes one admit, space opera, hard science fiction, soft science fiction, historical extrapolation, various/color and mutually contradictory political statements and a story of redemption. I agree with the last and I think it’s space opera with a bit of romance.) In addition, Sarah has published something over a hundred short stories, though she hasn’t stopped to figure out exactly how many more recently.