Tag Archives: setting

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Ten Books You Should Read

Early in the year — even before the pandemic hit — I wrote a post in which I basically said that all writers should read. There are certain “rules” about the profession that are actually negotiable — writers don’t really HAVE to write every day; we don’t HAVE to outline our books to be successful; some people like to write to music while others need absolute silence.

The reading thing, however, as I said at the time, is about as close to an ironclad rule as I can think of. If we want to learn the tropes of whatever genre we write in, we have to read. If we want to learn the craft of storytelling, and continue to hone that skill over a lifetime, we have to read. If we want to be informed and culturally literate citizens of the world, we have to read.

But what should we read? As an author with many friends in the business, I find that making recommendations can be tricky. I don’t wish to insult any of my colleagues with sins of omission. But there are certain books that I have read and not only enjoyed, but learned from. That’s what I’m after in this post. The following books have taught me something about narrative, about conveying story and emotion, about crafting prose. There are some unusual, even quirky, choices here. That comes with the prerogative of writing on my own blog. I hope you find this list helpful, informative, even inspirational.

In no particular order…

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin. Okay, for starters, it’s just a great book and the start of a remarkable series, a deserving winner of the Hugo (which was actually awarded to all three books in the Broken Earth Trilogy). Her plotting is fabulous, her use of point of view innovative and striking. Jemisin has since been awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant. So, yeah, she basically rocks.

Slow River, by Nicola Griffith. This is an older novel, the 1996 winner of both the Nebula Award and the Lambda Literary Award. It’s a great story, and it makes use of point of view and voice so beautifully that I have used it for teaching on several occasions. Basically she uses three different voices for a single character, each representing different moments in her life. Brilliant.

The Lions of Al-Rassan, by Guy Gavriel Kay. Kay is probably my favorite fantasy writer, and in recent years he has become a good friend, so I’m bending my own rule here, including the work of someone I know well. But I was a fanboy way before we became friends, so… He does a lot of things very well in all his books, but the world building in this particular book is breathtaking. He borrows extensively from history — he does in most of his books — but he also constructs his worlds with the care and skill of a watchmaker.

A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin. The entire Earthsea Trilogy is one of my all-time favorite works of fiction, but this first volume especially is masterful. It’s a relatively short work, and originally received less attention than it deserved because it was classified, somewhat patronizingly, as “children’s literature.” The worldbuilding is gorgeous, the storytelling simultaneously spare and rich, the prose understated but flawless. Even if you’ve read it, give it another look

Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner. The first of a couple of non-genre novels. Stegner was not only a terrific writer, but also a passionate, outspoken environmentalist and a chronicler, through his fiction, of the development of the American West. In 1972, Angle of Repose won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It is a master class in narrative. He basically tells two stories at once, one set in the present, one in the past. He blends them beautifully. And his prose is golden.

Animal Dreams, by Barbara Kingsolver. Another exquisitely written novel of the American West. Kingsolver weaves together multiple narratives and employs several different points of view to tell her tale. It’s moving, sad, uplifting. Actually, writing about it makes me want to read it again…

Adventures in the Screen Trade, by William Goldman. William Goldman wrote The Princess Bride, and then adapted the novel for the screen. He wrote the scripts for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men. He wrote Marathon Man, and then adapted it to the screen. And he wrote or adapted scripts for about twenty other movies you’ve heard of. In 1983, he published Adventures, which is part tell-all, part how-to. You don’t have to be an aspiring screen writer to learn from it. It is a treatise on creativity and the business of creation. It’s also entertaining as hell.

Five Seasons, by Roger Angell. Okay, this is, admittedly, a VERY quirky choice, but bear with me. Roger Angell, who recently turned 100 years old, is quite possibly the greatest baseball writer who has ever lived. He wrote regularly for The New Yorker from the 1960s through the first decade of this millennium. He has several collections of baseball essays, and Five Seasons is my personal favorite. But if you’re a baseball fan, you can’t go wrong with any of them — The Summer Game, Late Innings, Season Ticket, Once More Around the Park, Game Time. They’re all amazing. His descriptions of the game and the people he encounters are strikingly original and incredibly evocative. Even if you DON’T like baseball, you could learn from his work.

The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi. Back to genre stuff for a moment. The Windup Girl won the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2010, and it deserved them, along with every other honor it received. Terrific storytelling, powerful prose, mind-bending world building. This is the whole package.

Any collection of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short fiction. Another quirky choice. Hawthorne is, I believe, one of the more underrated of American writers. He was writing speculative fiction a century before anyone knew what the hell that was. His stories are haunting, strange, and memorable. “Rappaccini’s Daughter” might be my favorite short story. By anyone. Ever.

And with that, I’ll end.

Except to say, as I did back in February, that to be a writer is, by necessity, to be a reader as well. That is one of the joys what we do.

So keep writing, and keep reading.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Holidays As Part of World Building

I have written about the holidays a good deal in the past few weeks, but I have yet to address holidays as a topic in a Writing-Tip Wednesday post.

Now, you’re first response to this might be, “Well, why would you?”

And my answer? “World building.”

Think about the holidays that mark our calendars. Christmas, Easter, Ramadan, Passover, Yom Kippur — these are events that reveal much about our faiths, about the histories and traditions of the religions that guide the lives of so many. Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Labor Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents’ Day — these holidays carry meaning for our secular history, showing who and what we as a culture and society value year after year. Even Halloween and Groundhog Day, which are not holidays in any real sense of the word, offer glimpses into a pagan past that a small but significant part of our population still honors with celebrations marking Beltane, Samhain, Candlemas, the Solstices and Equinoxes.

Every culture and country has its special days, and every one of those special days comes with a story. Which is why the worlds we create for our novels and short fiction also need to have annual observances. Celebrations of this sort are something people do. They are one way of perpetuating the social norms and cultural touchstones that create communal identity. Holidays at their core, are all about story, about history and faith and tradition. And, as it happens, world building is about precisely the same things.

Seeds of Betrayal, by David B. Coe Weavers of War, by David B. CoeFor the Winds of the Forelands series (Rules of Ascension, Seeds of Betrayal, Bonds of Vengeance, Shapers of Darkness, Weavers of War) , I created what is without a doubt the most complex “calendar” I’ve ever undertaken for any project. For those of you not familiar with the world, I’ll give a very brief description. The world has two moons, Ilias and Panya, the Lovers, who chase each other across the sky. Each turn (month) has one night when both moons are full (the Night of Two Moons) and one night when both moons are dark (Pitch Night). Each turn is also named for a god or goddess, and so each Night of Two Moons and each Pitch Night has a special meaning.

For example, Adriel’s Turn (roughly equivalent to our May), is named for the goddess of fertility. According to lore, a love consummated on the Night of Two Moons in her turn will last forever. A love consummated on Pitch Night will end in betrayal. Kebb’s Turn (roughly October) is named for the god of the hunt. People believe a successful hunt on the Night of Two Moons presages good hunting throughout the cold turns. Meat from a beast killed on Pitch Night is considered cursed and cannot be eaten. Each turn has similar legends, or in some cases actual phenomena: Pitch Night in Morna’s Turn (named for the goddess of thunder) is always a night of violent storms. The first killing frost in the Forelands almost always arrives on Pitch Night in Sivan’s Turn. Several Nights of Two Moons and several Pitch Nights are observed with prayer and/or gift giving.

These beliefs and traditions make for a much richer, more believable world. If my characters were to traipse through their year without any sort of holidays or occasions, readers might still be drawn in by the rest of my storytelling, but the world would feel flat, and far less interesting.

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)I did something similar for the Islevale Cycle novels (Time’s Children, Time’s Demon, Time’s Assassin). In this world there are two primary deities, Kheraya (female) and Sipar (male), and the calendar is structured around them. It begins with the spring equinox — Kheraya’s Emergence, a day and night of enhanced magickal power and sensuality. The spring months are known as Kheraya’s Stirring, Kheraya’s Waking, Kheraya’s Ascent. The summer solstice is called Kheraya Ascendent, a day of feasts, celebration, and gift-giving. This is followed by the hot months of summer: Kheraya’s Descent, Fading, and Settling.

Sipar’s Emergence coincides with the autumn equinox, the pivot of the year, another day and night of sensuality and enhanced power. And then the pattern of the first half of the year repeats itself — Sipar’s Stirring, Sipar’s Waking, Sipar’s Ascent. These cooler months culminate in the solstice, called Sipar Ascendent, a day of fasting and contemplation. Finally, the year ends with the winter months: his Descent, Fading, and Settling.

In part, of course, I need a calendar for my worlds in order to organize my story. The Forelands books were sprawling and complex, with multiple narrative threads and point of view characters. I had to have a detailed calendar that allowed me to track all the stories and people. And with the Islevale books, which added time travel to the mix, I REALLY needed to know where and when I was in every chapter and on every page.

But my creative work on these calendars went far beyond what I would have required had I simply been interested in a utilitarian time structure. I wanted something that would enhance my storytelling, that would give my readers insights into these worlds and the people who inhabit them. Yes, they’re complex. That’s the fun part! That’s what made this element of my world building so exciting for me.

So as you think about the worlds you’re building, consider not only geography and climate, history and religion, weaponry and food. Think about holidays as well. Create a calendar that is completely endemic to your world. And then show your readers glimpses of it. You don’t have to let them see every detail. Likely that would be too much. It would drown out your story. Give your readers just enough to hint at all the great work you’ve done in the background. And take pride in knowing that you have taken one more step toward crafting a fully realized, intricate, living, breathing world.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Descriptions and Point of View

Description does not — cannot — take place in an emotional or circumstantial vacuum.

Not that long ago, I offered tips on writing scenes involving sex and violence, and essentially said that dealing with such encounters is almost entirely a matter of understanding and sticking to the point of view of our narrative character. These are the moments in which emotion, experience, and thought process are absolutely critical, and so for the scenes to work, we need to be completely rooted in the observations and feelings of our point of view characters.

I also offered this: “…Point of view is the place where character development meets plot, where emotion is introduced to our narratives, where our readers are given the emotional cues they need to experience our stories as we intend.”

With that in mind, I want to talk today about more general descriptive passages. Describing is something we writers do all the time. Whether we are telling our readers what another character looks like, or what kind of room our point of view characters have entered or what kind of smells or tastes or sensations they are experiencing, we are describing constantly. So getting it right is really important.

I love writing descriptions. Long before I became a professional writer, I knew I was destined for this line of work because I was constantly composing such passages in my head. I would see a sunset and think, “how would I write this?” I’d ask myself the same question upon tasting something exotic and new, or smelling something awful, or… whatever. During my career, I have written descriptions that still evoke pride when I go back to read them.

Always, though, what makes the descriptions work is not just powerful prose and precise word choice. As with those action scenes I’ve written about previously, descriptions of settings and people have to tap into character, into emotion and mind-set and motivation.

Let me put it this way, if we walk into a room we’ve never been in before, we’re going to notice different things about it depending upon our circumstances and how we feel about being there. If we’re relaxed — say, visiting the home of a friend, we might take time to notice the floors, the art on the wall, the framed photos of family arrayed around the room. If, on the other hand, we’ve been brought to a place against our will, we would be more inclined to look for ways out, for details that will tell us more about our “hosts” and their intentions. If we’re trained in such things, we might even look for objects we can turn into weapons or tools of escape.

In the same way, our impressions of someone new will yield very different responses depending on whether this person seems to be an adversary or a friend, a rival or a potential mate, a long lost sibling or a celebrity we’ve been hearing about all our lives.

Now, chances are that we, in the course of our lives, will not be in a position of being taken somewhere against our will. We will likely have few opportunities to meet celebrities and few occasions to encounter mortal enemies. Our characters on the other hand… Well, we do all sorts of shit to them, don’t we?

So when we write these descriptions from THEIR point of view, we need to take into consideration what they might be thinking and feeling, what they’re worried about, if anything, and what their goals are for the encounter that is about to take place. Description does not — cannot — take place in an emotional or circumstantial vacuum.

The other thing to keep in mind when writing description is the simple fact that we have five senses, not just one. We are highly visual creatures, and it’s all too easy to become so caught up in telling our readers how something looks that we neglect to mention how something sounds or feels or smells or tastes. Smells in particular are far too easy to overlook. Our sense of smell is unrefined compared to that of, say, dogs or cats or other hunting mammals. But smells can be among the most evocative of the senses. Aromas and scents can transport us, rekindling memories and emotions long buried. I still grow nostalgic for my childhood in New York and my college years in New England when I smell leaves burning in the fall. My adult daughters often remark upon arriving home for a visit that the scent of our house brings back some of their earliest memories. Taste can have a similar effect.

Again, you want to be true to the point of view of your narrator. All your readers’ sensory experiences should be colored by the emotions and exigencies of your characters. And your descriptions should involve as many of the senses as possible. Within reason, naturally. Your POV character doesn’t need to lick the walls and furniture in order to render a more complete sensory experience. That would just be weird. Unless, of course, you happen to be writing a new take on the Willy Wonka story, in which case have at it!

Keep writing!

Writing Tip Wednesday: Maps, Worldbuilding, and the Creation of Story

So you’re trapped in your home with too much time and too little to do. The world around you has gone to hell, and you’re fed up. Sound familiar?

Yeah, thought so. So why not take the opportunity to create your own world? You’re a writer. You have that power.

Not long ago, I wrote about creating magic systems, and that advice could come in handy in this process. But there is lots, lots more to worldbuilding than just magic. That’s the beauty of it. A created world can be as complex and rich and deep as you want it to be.

I am not going to try to squeeze every element of worldbuilding into this post. I could write ten essays on the subject and not exhaust it, and I promise to return to world building topics in future posts. For today, let’s start with this: I LOVE creating maps. That might sound weird, but it’s true. I’m not particularly skilled as a visual artist – which is to say that I have NO skill at all in that regard. But my maps are pretty darn good, if I do say so myself.

I start with graph paper when I can. (I’m sure you can get some through an online seller if you need it. Unlike other sorts of paper, it doesn’t seem to be a hoard-worthy product…) Why graph paper? Because it allows you to keep track of your scale as you create land features, rivers, oceans, cities, etc.

Map of IslevaleAnd then I just let my imagination run wild. At first I let my hand wander over the page, creating the broad outlines of my world. Sometimes I have to start over a couple of times before I come up with a design I like. But generally, I find that the less I impose pre-conceived notions on my world, the more successful my initial efforts. I draw land masses, taking care to make my shorelines realistically intricate. (Take a look at a map of the real world. Even seemingly “smooth” coastlines are actually filled with inlets, coves, islands, etc.) I put in rivers and lakes. I locate my mountain ranges, deserts, wetlands, etc.

And then comes the fun part. I start naming stuff.

Yeah, okay, it takes a certain level of geek to find naming stuff on a map fun. But bear with me. You see, place names and land feature names are stories waiting to happen. Sure, sometimes we call places by names that are stupidly obvious. The Rocky Mountains, for instance. Yeah, very original, not to mention informative. Distinguishes them from the Cheesy Mountains, I guess… On the other hand, each named peak in the Rockies DOES tell a story. So do place names that include a person’s name or that use geographic features to anthropomorphize.

Maybe your world has a hero whose exploits are so renowned that places are simply named for her, randomly, the way seemingly every state in the Union has a “Washington County” or a city named “Lincoln.” We need to learn the story of your hero.

Maybe your mountains are named for one or more of your mythical beings. What is (are) their story (stories)? Maybe you have a river that is named for a warrior who perished on its banks, or a range of hills that are said to be haunted.

My point is not that EVERY name you give has to convey a story. Sometimes a Rocky Mountain is simply a mountain that’s rocky. Sometimes a Whitewater Creek is simply a creek that has lots of rapids. But a fraction of your named features should have names that tell much, much more about your world than just what it looks like. A few of your names should hint at stories, at history or lore. My world maps tend to have three or four or even five separate nations, and each nation (handled in separate maps) tends to have maybe thirty names (cities, mountains, deserts, forests, lakes, rivers, bays, harbors, oceans, etc.). Even if only one out of five has a name worthy of a story… Well, you can do the math. That’s a good number of stories.

And then (and this is REALLY the fun part) you need to write those stories. They will give you some of your history for your world. Maybe they will give you some of your religion, or even your economy. They may hint at social customs, at holy days, at rites of passage. Certainly they will help you refine the authorial voice for writing in your world. They may even give you material to sell to short story markets. The first short story I ever published – “Night of Two Moons,” published in  back in 2002 – was a historical tale set in the Forelands. I have since sold short stories set in the Thieftaker world, the Fearsson world, and Islevale. And yes, as I remember it, that Forelands story grew out of something I first named on the original map.

Worldbuilding is tons of fun. Yes, it’s work, but it is well worth the effort. I have heard writers say, “Oh, I don’t do a lot of worldbuilding. I focus on character instead.” And each time I hear that, I think it’s the most ridiculous thing ever said. Writing is not a zero sum game. My worldbuilding doesn’t detract from my character work, thank you very much. But it does enrich my storytelling by making my settings more compelling and more realistic.

So while our real world is going to hell in a handbasket (another really, really odd phrase – I’ve started a list…), you can escape for a while by creating your own world. You’ll enjoy it, and, more important, you’ll get background for your world and material for short fiction.

Keep writing!

A Quick-Tip Tuesday Post on Travel and Narrative

We never know when we’re going to draw upon experiences in our lives, be it for setting or character, plot or emotional content, dialog or action or romance or any of the myriad other narrative elements that come, at least in part, from our own lives.

We writers are pack rats. We hoard everything. Maybe not in a physical sense (though I’m that kind of pack rat, as well), but certainly in a conceptual sense.

It’s Quick-Tip Tuesday over at Magical Words and I have a post up today about travel, experience, and turning memory into narrative. I’ve been drawing on my own travel experiences for my fiction for nearly twenty years, and as we move into summer travel season, it strikes me as a good time to discuss such things. The post can be found here. I hope you enjoy it.