Welcome to the GWN blog! Today we have David O Smith talking about one of my problem areas, world building.
Fiction writers whose works take place in the here and now have it easy. They have a complete, ready-made world in which to set their stories. Those of us who write speculative fiction have extra problems. We not only have to write the story, we have to build a world in which to set it. A world that may be marginally different from the one we live in, or a world that might be totally removed from ours.
Simple, you say. Hie thee off to the nearest library and get yourself into some research. Find the nearest appropriate period in history and learn all about it. So, I’ve got Noggin Halfaxe bouncing around in my skull screaming “Write about me, write about me”. That name sounds like a Viking name so should I spend the next six months studying life in Viking times to give me some grounding for his world? Noggin’s gone off in a huff by then and will never get his story told. Not by me, at any rate.
And how much research can you do for something set in the future, or in somewhere totally different from this world? Anne McCaffery’s “Pern”, say, or Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”.
But you’ve still got to build that world. There will need to be a consistent, cohesive stage for Noggin to strut his stuff on. How do we do that? Ask questions of your characters, something all writers should be very good at. “Well, why the heck do they call you ‘Halfaxe’?”
We still have to answer those story questions, but there are others that we must ask, as well. Start from very basics – “What’s that axe made from, Noggin?”
Beware – world building can be addictive. Yes, another good excuse to do something other than writing – as if we needed one. It’s fascinating to settle down and draw up all the details of a world. I could spend a year or more, full time, creating the planet Noggin lives on, and masses of information about where it is in space, what its sun is like and so on. By that time, of course, poor Noggin has got fed up with waiting and stalked off to raid someone else’s brain, and my work’s wasted. If I put in that much detail most of it will be wasted anyway, because it’s not relevant to Noggin and his life.
Let me give you an example. In one novel I have in progress the world has two moons. One goes round the world in 10 days and the other in 40. It so happens that the world goes round its sun in 400 days (yes, all right, I chose figures to make it easy. You don’t have to make everything hard for yourself, you know). So their calendar divides the year into 10 circuits of one moon (which they call months – I wasn’t feeling very original that day) and that is subdivided into 4 periods of 10 days corresponding to the circuits of the other moon. They call these “Lights”. How long is a day you ask? Sunrise to sunset, and back again. That’s all you (and your characters) need to know.
See what I mean? Build those parts of the world that will affect the life of your characters, your story, but don’t waste time on things that don’t matter.
Noggin’s a sea raider. He spends part of his life sailing over the seas raiding other people’s homes. So the weather, ships and seafaring are going to be crucial things to know about in his world. For one quarter of his year the sun beats down from a cloudless sky, there is no wind and no rain. For another quarter there are violent storms, and the rain comes down in stair rods. For the other two quarters there are steady breezes, the sun is warm, but not blazing hot, and there is a certain amount of refreshing rain. So when will Noggin do his raiding? And how does he tell when the seasons are changing? Does he care if there’s a vast country on the other side of his world that is ruled by Amazons who make Ann Robinson look gentle, and polite, and have only one use for men? Not unless he gets blown there, at which point it becomes part of the story.
It needn’t all come from your brain, of course. If Noggin’s Gods are similar to those of the Vikings that were in this world then, yes, off to the library you go. Be prepared to do some tweaking. If it doesn’t fit, change it. After all, it’s your world. You are the great creator.
Don’t feel you have to do it all at once, tying young Noggin into a corner until you have his world all polished and sparkling new for him to go raiding. You can – but don’t be so drawn into creating his world that you never actually get round to his story. Or you can be like me, start telling the tale, and build the world around it as you go.
And above all – have fun!
Cindy here again!
Great tips, David! Thanks for sharing your world building techniques with us.