Tag Archives: research

Writing-Tip Wednesday: World Building Lessons I’d Forgotten

Back in early March, I posted about creating magic systems, and said then that I expected I would post about world building at least once more over the course of the year. And so here I am, making myself a prophet (because right now making myself a profit is proving difficult [rim shot]).

I am world building again, for the first time in a while, actually. The last time I created a world whole-cloth was when I began work on the Islevale Cycle, which was several years ago. I have a completed novel that my agent and I are shopping around, but that is set in our world with only a small speculative fiction element. My other most recent work has been in the Thieftaker universe, which I developed nearly a decade ago. I’ve written a couple of Fearsson short stories, but that world even pre-dates the Thieftaker world (though the books took longer to find their way into print).

My point being that it feels a little odd to be immersed again in world building, and several times over the past few weeks I have had to remind myself of lessons I thought I had internalized long ago. So I figured I would share some of these lessons with you.

1) Begin with questions: As I said in that March post, I love world building. There is something thrilling about starting from scratch with limitless possibilities. I had forgotten, however, how overwhelming the process can feel, particularly at the outset, when ideas are amorphous and we don’t yet grasp what we need to discover about our world. And so I like to start with a series of questions, which serve to rationalize and structure my task. (This, by the way, is how I approach research as well; I see research and world building as connected parts of the same creative act.) That list of questions is long, and early on, as I learn more and more about my world, the list continues to expand, the addition of new questions outpacing my ability to answer them. Eventually, though, the questions get answered and the contours of my world — literal and figurative — come into relief.

2) Organize from the outset: I am not nearly as organized as some assume I am, or as I would like to be. Too often, my impulse is to dive into my world building and research and jot down what I find as quickly as I can. The result is haphazard to say the least. I do much better when I slow myself down from the start and make an effort to keep orderly notes. That means using Scrivener as it is meant to be used, as a catch-all for ALL world building and research. Already with this new project, I have not been as good in this regard as I would like to be. But the first step toward curing myself is recognizing that I have a problem, right? Right??

3) Consult with smart people: This new project of mine is NOT fantasy. It’s science fiction, almost space-opera-ish. I know. I can’t believe it either. But there it is. And so I know even less about my subject matter than I usually do at this stage. I have been in touch with literal rocket scientists about this stuff, and I’m learning a lot. Chances are, no matter the nature of the project we’re working on, we know someone — or we know someone who knows someone — who can help us fill in gaps in our knowledge base. Don’t be afraid to reach out to friends, or acquaintances, or even perfect strangers. The truth is, most people like to talk about the things they know, they like to help people, and they often think it’s pretty cool to learn we’re writing a book about something that fascinates them. Moreover, institutions like police departments and medical examiners offices, not to mention museums, government agencies, and scientific institutions, often have public relations offices that are there to answer our questions. Avail yourself of these resources.

4) Let your brain go wild: Plotting our books takes time and precision. It’s hard work, in part because we are forced to reign in our creative impulses a bit in order to come up with narratives that are logical, that make sense to our readers. World building is hard, too, and it also requires a certain rationality. But, as I said before, it is a time of possibility. We can choose what it means to be logical in this new setting. Decisions that will become immutable once we begin to write, remain fluid for now. This is the stage in the process when our imaginations should be most at liberty to roam. Enjoy that freedom.

5) Finally, be patient: Most of the time, I measure my work output in terms of pages and word counts. Progress is tangible and easily quantified. World building isn’t like that. At this stage of a project, I spend much of my time staring out the window, thinking, trying to come up with ideas, with names, with histories and forms of government and religions and the like. It is an amorphous, sloppy process that is nearly impossible to measure in any concrete way. This bothers me — it always has. I grow impatient. I chide myself for not “getting more done.” I have been world building for this new series for, like, two weeks, and already I’m railing at myself for not being done. Just for the sake of comparison, I took three months to research the Thieftaker books, so I need to cut myself some slack. World building is work. It might not break down into units that are easily counted and banked, but it’s work nevertheless. And if you’re like me, and you chafe at that sort of thing… Well, give yourself a break. That’s what I plan to do. Because I have a lot more world building to do.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: My Favorite Reference Books

Last week’s Writing-Tip Wednesday post was about the computer apps I use most when researching, outlining, and writing books and stories. As promised, this week I want to look at what are probably  the most important writing tools I have: my reference books.

I use the internet a great deal when I’m writing. I look up a ton of stuff every day. But to my mind, there is no replacement for having the physical books, for being able to thumb through an index, or flip through pages on our way to the topic we’re after only to discover some tidbit of information we hadn’t known we wanted until the instant we found it.

So with that in mind, here are the books I use most often and recommend most enthusiastically.

Let’s start with the basics. Every writer should have a good dictionary and thesaurus at hand all the time. My dictionary of choice is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition. My main reason for using it, beyond the fact that it is comprehensive and widely accepted, is that for every entry it gives the date when the word first entered the popular lexicon. That is invaluable for authors who write in historical periods or fantasy analogues to historical eras, and who wish to eliminate anachronistic words and phrases from their books.

My thesaurus of choice is Roget’s International Thesaurus (6th ed.). This is the really big one – over 1200 pages. It is organized conceptually, by category of word, with an alphabetical index. The advantage of this is that if we look up a word like “total” we get a lengthy listing of possible meanings. Do we want a synonym for “total” that means “amount” (noun) or “compute” (verb) or “whole” (adjective)?

The other general writing reference I use is The Chicago Manual of Style, which is the industry standard for all matters relating to grammar, punctuation, and usage. I have a slightly older edition. I believe the most current is the 18th.

Another word oriented reference I have and love is English Through the Ages, which further refines the historical dating of words. It has an extensive index in the back that distinguishes among different meanings of words. Take the word “spleen”: The body part was named before the 1300s, but “spleen” was not used as a synonym for “temper” until the 1600s. I love tidbits like that.

I write fantasy, and so I am a big fan of the Scott Cunningham books on magic. Titles on my shelves include: The Complete Books of Incense, Oils and Brews; Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs; Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Crystal, Gem, and Metal Magic; Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner; Earth Power: Techniques of Natural Magic; and Earth, Air, Fire, and Water: More Techniques of Natural Magic. I will admit that Cunningham offers his books as guides for people who actually believe in the various sorts of supernatural techniques and objects he describes. I don’t. But I find the books indispensable as reference guides.

I also write mysteries into my stories and books, and have therefore relied heavily on the Writer’s Digest “Howdunit” series of books on crime and policing. These books are designed specifically for writers, and so they offer incredibly valuable information in a format that is easily digestible. They are made to be reference books. Titles in my collection include the following: Police Procedural (investigative procedures); Scene of the Crime (crime scene techniques); Cause of Death (forensics); Body Trauma (wounds and injuries); Deadly Doses (on poisons); Just the Facts, Ma’am (general investigative techniques); and Howdunit: How Crimes Are Committed and Solved. These are great books. Highly recommended.

I have several books on magical creatures and demons, all of them in encyclopedia format. Two of them are put out by W.W. Norton and written/edited by Carol Rose: Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins and Giants, Monsters, and Dragons. I also have Demons and Demonology, by Rosemary Ellen Guiley (Checkmark Books); and The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures, by John and Caitlin Matthews (Sterling Publishing).

I write about castles with some frequency and do my best to get all my architectural terminology right. I actually use two kids books on castles as my primary references: Castle, by David Macauley, and Castle: Cross Sections, by Stephen Biesty. I have supplemented these two books with small books that I have picked up at just about every castle I have ever visited while in Wales, Ireland, England, etc. These are basically self-guided tour brochures that give terminology and history and offer illustrations. Almost any castle gift shop will have one.

Another book I love is called What’s What: A Visual Glossary of Everyday Objects – From Paper Clips to Passenger Ships (edited by Reginald Bragonier, Jr. and David Fisher, Ballantine Books). This book gives you the name of every part of hundreds upon hundreds of objects, vehicles, architectural features, and more. It is out of print (as are many of the titles I have listed in this post) but can be found on used book sites, Ebay, etc.

I could go on, of course. I have dozens of books about the Revolutionary Era, all sorts of field guides, a book about animal tracking, books about baseball and history and weapons, about ancient Scotland and Ireland and Peru and Greece, about Civil War and World War II battles. I could go on and on. There is no rule for collecting reference books except to keep your eyes open. The bargain rack at your local Barnes and Noble can be a great place to collect helpful titles. So can flea markets and library sales. As I say, most of the titles I’ve shared with you here are out of print. But with a bit of legwork and digging you can find them and begin your own collection.

Best of luck, and keep writing!

Dealing with Inaccuracies in my New Book

SpellBlind200Yesterday I received one of those emails that authors usually hate to get. A reader wrote to let me know that there were a couple of details in my new novel, Spell Blind (book I in The Case Files of Justis Fearsson) that I had wrong. I work hard on my research, and on those occasions when I happen to get something wrong, I am deeply disappointed in myself. And I have received messages in the past from readers who, let us say, did not handle the situation in a socially appropriate way, which makes the whole thing that much worse.

This time, though, the reader in question, did everything right. His email was courteous, informative, and respectful. It was clear to me that he wrote not to criticize, but rather to help. He was even kind enough to tell me that the small inaccuracies he found did not keep him from enjoying the novel. And armed with what he told me, I will be sure to avoid these errors in subsequent volumes of the series. I’m grateful to him for his help, and for his willingness to take the time to contact me.

I’m sharing this with you because I think we can all learn from this gentleman’s professional and thoughtful approach to contacting me. Just about every author has faced this at one time or another. We’re human, and sometimes we get things wrong. But I’ve been sent emails about mistakes I’ve made that were rude to the point of abusiveness. In fact, I’ve received emails “correcting” things that I DIDN’T get wrong, that were rude. There is nothing wrong with sharing our knowledge in circumstances such as these. As I said, his email helped me. But there is no need for cruelty, for abuse, for name-calling. Not to be too glib, but it’s one thing to be helpful, it’s another to be hurtful.

And what were my mistakes, and why would I share them here? Well, I’m always willing to share my good news — nice reviews, new sales, etc. This time, I messed up, as all writers do from time to time, and I feel that I should share that, too.

Early in the book, Justis Fearsson, my point of view character, mentions that he is licensed to own a firearm in Arizona. Arizona doesn’t issue such licenses. I also said that Jay became a detective in the robbery detail of the Phoenix Police Department upon graduating from the police academy. As it turns out, the PPD requires two years of uniformed duty before an officer can be assigned such a unit.

These are small matters that have little bearing on the plotting or character arcs.  But that doesn’t excuse my mistakes. I got these things wrong, and I apologize for that.