Tag Archives: world building

Professional Wednesday: Why Fantasy, Why Magic?

My oldest brother, Bill, who we lost several years ago, was an avid reader. He loved books of all sorts. Every year, he made a list of the National Book Award nominees — finalists and books on the long list — and read them all. He read fiction and non-fiction, his interests as reflected in the latter ranging from baseball to natural history to military history. He was a poet in his own right, and he revered literature of every stripe.

And yet . . .

He was always quite proud of my career, and he had a shelf among his many book cases that he reserved for my novels. But he felt on some level that I was wasting my ability by writing fantasy. Many times over the years, he suggested I try my hand at writing so-called literary fiction. Every time he did, I cringed just a little.

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)The bias against genre fiction (fantasy, science fiction, mystery, Westerns, romance, etc.) among those who consider themselves devotees of “true” literature, is something I have encountered again and again throughout my career. Not surprisingly, I don’t believe it has any basis in reality. Fantasy (to address my speciality) like literary fiction, runs the gamut in terms of quality. One can find in all literary fields examples of brilliance and also of mediocrity. No genre has a monopoly on either. I write fantasy because I enjoy it, because I love to imbue my stories with magic, with phenomena I don’t encounter in my everyday life. I wasn’t shunted to this genre because I wasn’t good enough to write the other stuff. I don’t hide in my genre because I fear I can’t cut it in the world of “real” literature.

I said before that I cringed whenever my brother raised the issue with me. I also told him in no uncertain terms that I was writing what I enjoyed, and enjoying what I wrote, which remains true to this day. Writing fantasy demands that I create coherent, convincing magic systems. Often it requires the creation of entire alternate worlds, complete with their own histories and cultures, politics and religions, economies and social structures. These are not distractions from the fundamental elements of narrative — character development, plotting, pacing, clear and flowing prose, etc. Quite the contrary. These fantastical elements enhance those fundamentals and present unique and rewarding challenges.

Time’s Children, by D.B. Jackson © Angry Robot. Art by Jan Weßbecher.It’s not enough to create my worlds and magic systems. I have to explain them to my readers in a manner that is entirely natural and unobtrusive. And — my own preference — I also have to complete my stories and my character arcs in ways that utilize my fantasy elements without allowing them to take over my story telling. My heroes may possess magic, but in the end, I will always choose to have them prevail by drawing upon their native human qualities — their courage and resolve, their intelligence and creativity, their devotion to the people and places they love. Magic sets them apart and makes them interesting. It is often the hook the draws readers to my books. But those human attributes — those are the ones my real-world readers relate to. They form the bond between my readers and my characters. And so if those are the qualities that allow my characters to prevail in the end, then their triumphs will feel more personal and rewarding to my readers. It is the simplest sort of literary math.

I believe part of the bias against genre fiction is based in the erroneous belief that the trappings of these literary types — magic, imagined technology, romantic tension and conflict, the ticking clock of a murder investigation — somehow serve as substitutes for character development and good writing fundamentals. In truth, they are complements to solid narrative work. Genre fiction, when well done, has all that extra stuff we love AND great story telling.

I expect I am preaching to the choir a bit with this post. That’s okay. It’s not just those of us who write genre fiction who have to put up with the biases of others. Readers of our genres deal with the same sort of prejudices all the time. Fine. Those other people don’t know what they’re missing.

Plus, their book jackets aren’t nearly as cool as ours.

Keep writing. Keep reading.

Professional Wednesday: “Write What You Know,” part III — Know What You Write

For the last couple of weeks, I have written my Professional Wednesday essays about the old writing adage, “write what you know.” In my first post on the topic, I wrote about tapping into emotions and our reactions to experiences to get past the limiting implications of “write what you know.” Last week I focused on working into our stories the things we love in real life, be they areas of study, hobbies, or passions.

For this week’s post, my last (for now) about this subject, I build on something said by my good friend, editor and writer Joshua Palmatier, for whose publishing imprint, Zombies Need Brains, I’ve been doing anthology editing the past several years. The other day, he and I talked about this series of posts and he told me that when he hears “write what you know,” he thinks of genre. He takes the advice to mean that if writers want to write fantasy, they should read lots of fantasy and familiarize themselves with its traditions, its tropes, its major works, its newest trends. Same with writing mystery, or SF, or anything else. Writers should know the literary terrain before they start to write.

This makes a tremendous amount of sense to me, and adds a dimension to the “write what you know” conversation that I hadn’t considered.

Indeed, expanding on this, it seems to me that when we look at the old advice from this perspective we start to consider all sorts of things. Yes, genre. But also research. World building. Character. In this construction, “write what you know” can almost be turned around to read “know what you write.”

I discussed the Thieftaker books in last week’s post, and I mentioned how my love of U.S. history steered me toward setting the series in pre-Revolutionary Boston. But I failed to mention then that upon deciding to set the books in 1760s Boston, I then had to dive into literally months of research. Sure, I had read colonial era history for my Ph.D. exams, but I had never looked at the period the way I would need to in order to use it as a setting for a novel, much less several novels and more than a dozen pieces of short fiction. Ironically, as a fiction author I needed far more basic factual information about the city, about the time period, about the historical figures who would appear in my narratives, than I ever did as a doctoral candidate.

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)The same is true of the worlds I build from scratch for my novels. My most recent foray into wholesale world building was the prep work I did for my Islevale Cycle, the time travel/epic fantasy books I wrote a few years ago. As with my Thieftaker research, my world building for the Islevale trilogy consumed months. I began (as I do with my research) with a series of questions about the world, things I knew I had to work out before I could write the books. How did the various magicks work? What were the relationships among the various island nations? Where did my characters fit into these dynamics? Etc.

“Write what we know/Know what you write” means having a sense from the beginning of a project of what the book ought to look like when it’s complete. I’m not suggesting that we have to outline (if outlining is your thing, great; if it’s not, that’s all right, too) or plan our narratives. But we should be able to visualize our worlds. We should know what sort of technology they have, what sorts of magic systems are at work. And we should know how we might market our stories — where they fit in the pantheon of whatever genre we’re writing.

Put another way, we need to be familiar with the work we’re about to do, both on a structural level and a publishing industry level. And we need this not because some guy with a blog said so, but because we want to sell our books. We want to interest agents and editors in them. We want to interest readers. And we don’t always have the luxury of waiting until the thing is finished to have these conversations. Again, I’m not saying we have to know everything that happens in the book ahead of time. I’m a dedicated outliner, and even I can’t do that. I am saying, though, that we should understand how to place our books in the marketplace. And we should know before we begin writing what world building we need to do, or what research we have to master, before we can tell the story we want to write.

Write what you know. Know what you write. As it turns out, the old advice makes a lot of sense in several different ways. It may not mean exactly what was intended when the phrase was first coined. But it still is valuable advice for today’s writer.

Keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: “Write What You Know,” part II

Put another way, I was driven . . . not merely by the fact that I “know” these things, but rather by the fascination and passion that drove me to learn about them in the first place.

With last week’s Professional Wednesday post, I began what I expect will be a multi-week conversation about the age-old writing advice, “Write what you know.” In that entry, I pointed out that “Write what you know” can be overly limiting, or, if thought of in the right way, can speak to exactly the sort of mining of our emotional experience that will enrich our narratives and character work.

Today, I would like to focus on “write what you know” as a tool in world building and plotting.

Let me start this way:

Children of Amarid, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)As many of you know, my first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle, had as its narrative core, a magic system in which mages formed psychic, magical bonds with birds of prey: hawks, owls, eagles. To this day, fans of the series mention those relationships between mages and their avian familiars, as the element of the books they enjoyed most.

What you may not know is that I have been an avid bird watcher for more than fifty years (yes, you read that right: 50 years), since I was a small boy.

Nearly all my readers are familiar with my Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical fantasy series set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. Some of you may not know that I not only love history, I also studied it extensively and have a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Stanford.

I’m not the only one who does this. I am a huge fan of the work of Guy Gavriel Kay, and perhaps you are as well. Maybe, you have read enough of his books to notice how many of his significant characters are physicians. As it happens, so was Kay’s father. He grew up in a household in which the study and practice of medicine were paramount.

I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. But I want to be equally clear about where I am NOT going. I didn’t come to the LonTobyn books, my first fiction venture, thinking “I have to ‘write what I know,’ and therefore I am going to create a world with a bird-based magic system.” Rather, I came up with the idea for the books organically. I love birds. I have always been fascinated by raptors. And at some point, it simply occurred to me that a magic system built around hawks and owls would be incredibly cool.

My choice with respect to the Thieftaker books was somewhat more deliberate. I originally conceived them as alternate-world fantasies. My editor at the time urged me to think about a historical approach instead, citing my history background. He suggested I set the books in London. And at that point I thought, “if I’m going to draw on my history background, why not do it right and set the books in the New World, whose history I know so well?”

Put another way, I was driven to write my books about hawks and about history not merely by the fact that I “know” these things, but rather by the fascination and passion that drove me to learn about them in the first place.

Again, I am far from unique in this regard. I know writers who love music and who have used it as the basis for their magic systems. I have a friend, whose family history is tied intimately to the devastation of Europe’s Jewish population by Nazism, who has written an incredibly powerful fantasy series set in Nazi-ravaged Europe. Another friend, who is a brilliant writer and editor, based her magic system literally on the written word, on the commitment of spells to vellum. And yet another friend, who is dyslexic, imparted that same trait to his lead character.

I don’t believe any of them “wrote what they know” to satisfy some arcane requirement of our profession. Rather, they came up with fiction ideas that reflected their loves and interests, their emotional pasts or that of their families, their very reality in all its complexity.

And there is no reason you can’t do the same. “Write what you know” doesn’t have to constrain us, nor does it necessarily force us in certain directions. It offers us opportunities. “Where do your ideas come from?” I’m asked this all the time, and always I respond the same way: Ideas are everywhere. We encounter them daily, though at the time we don’t always recognize the encounters for what they are. Robert Frost once said “An idea is a feat of association.” Our hobbies, our professions, our loves (and perhaps even our hates), our educational backgrounds, our family backgrounds, our emotional and physical battles and achievements — any and all of these can point us in the direction of a new story, a new character, a new world.

My point being that we don’t have to struggle to come up with ideas. Often they’re sitting right in front of us, waiting for that “feat of association,” that magical (pun intended) moment when “Where do your ideas come from?” meets “Write what you know.”

Keep writing!!

Creative Wednesday: Communicating Our World Building To Our Readers

Tomorrow night, I will be giving a talk on world building here at the university, in a themed residential house devoted to writing. The students from the house, at least those I’ve met so far, are earnest and passionate and serious about learning their craft. I’m looking forward to what I expect will be a fun and engaging evening.

For much of the evening, I will be answering questions and thus allowing the interests and concerns of the students to guide our discussion. I’ll open, however, with remarks on what I believe to be some of the keys to good world building. Some of these things I have covered in posts on this site — creating maps for our worlds, developing magic systems, building cultural and social traditions into our worlds through the creation of holidays, customs, and rites.

But I will also focus on the maintenance of our worlds. The feeding and caring of them, if you will. To my mind, one of the central elements of world building is putting all the work we do into practice.

What do I mean by this?

A couple of things, actually. First, I mean that the most important thing we do as writers who create worlds is convey the details of those worlds to our readers. The creation is the easy part. The hard part is sharing with our readers all of the cool things we’ve done, without resorting to data dumps and “as you know, Bob” moments. We want the communication of our world building to be seamless, invisible. We want the information we share to feel as natural as, well, every other part of our narrative. And so the descriptions and explanations of our worlds need to be doled out in ways that are consistent with point of view. Characters should not explain things, either in conversation or exposition, that they would not need to consider or discuss in that given moment. Put another way, if they have no reason to think or talk about these things other than to meet our needs as writers, then we have resorted to contrivance, and that’s not good writing. We need to be driven not by our narrative purposes, but rather by the exigencies faced by our characters. And so, world building needs to be conveyed in tiny increments, rather than in chunks, and it needs to be communicated, at least in part, through spoken language, with idioms and expressions and aphorisms and simple analogies that carry within them vital information.

Think of all the things we say in the course of everyday conversation that actually might give a stranger information about our world, our country, our faith traditions, our history. Elements of our landscape work their way into our speech as examples of grandeur or vastness or desolation or beauty. The same should be true of landscape features in our worlds. Figures from our history embody nobility, wisdom, generosity, courage, and also deception, betrayal, villainy. So should figures from the histories of our worlds. Tenets of faith become components of our social and cultural values, of our rituals and practices with respect to courtship and familial relationships. Faith should have a similar influence in our created worlds. I can go on, but I think you get the idea. We have to learn to write our worlds into our stories with the subtlety and pervasiveness of our own world’s insinuation into our language. That is how we communicate our world building without bludgeoning our readers with it.

And then the other element of this, the flip side of the same artistic coin, is making absolutely certain that expressions and analogies and all the rest, which might be reflective of our real, modern world, don’t creep into our writing in a way that contaminates our created worlds. We should avoid any figures of speech rooted in our traditions of faith, politics, history, culture, etc. We should avoid temporal anachronisms that might sound too modern for, say, our early-Renaissance-analogous created world. The last thing we wish to do as writers is create a world with painstaking care, only to undermine its credibility with conversations that sound more like something we might overhear in our local Starbucks.

As I say, I only have a short time at the beginning of tomorrow night’s event in which to present what I believe are key world building techniques. But to my mind the elements I have discussed here are so important that even if I had only half as much time, I would still work them in to my remarks.

Best of luck working on your worlds. Keep writing!!

Professional Wednesday: The Two World-Builds

They don’t care that the twelfth king of Hamsterdom was Belchamiethius IV, known to his subjects as “Conquerer of the Exercise Wheel.” They don’t need to know the names of each mountain peak in the Twelve Dunce Cap Range.

Book shelfThis past weekend I gave a talk on world building for the Futurescapes Writers’ Workshop. It was a lengthy talk, and I’m not going to repeat all of it here. But I did want to focus on one element of the topic, because I think it’s something writers of fantasy, of historical fiction, of science fiction, and of other sub-categories of speculative fiction lose sight of now and again.

When we build our worlds — and I include in this doing our research for historical settings — we actually have to construct our worlds twice. The first time, we do it for ourselves. We apply whatever techniques we use for such things, and we come up with histories, governing systems, economies, religions, social and cultural traditions, physical features for our land, climatic trends that influence everything from food production to troop movements, etc., etc., etc. We develop our magic systems, if our worlds have them, or perhaps technological developments if our books trend more toward science fiction. In short, we do everything one might expect in order to create a rich, complex, believable setting for our books and stories.

For me, this can be a lengthy process. I take my world building seriously, and I like to have most of the fundamentals in place before I begin to write. Naturally, I have to go back and fill in gaps after I’ve started putting words to “paper.” I find it nearly impossible to anticipate every question I might need to answer, every detail of my world I might need to develop. To this day, I still come up with new spells for Ethan Kaille to cast in the Thieftaker books. In fact, the upcoming novellas have an entirely new element of magick — one Ethan hasn’t faced before in a foe. So there’s that to look forward to…

My larger point, though, is this: Even after we have finished building our worlds and have turned to the writing of our novels, our world building is far from over.

Why?

Because while the world now exists for us, the writer, it remains entirely unrealized in the minds of our readers. And so now we have to construct it again, this time in a manner that is digestible and entertaining and unobtrusive, not to mention elegant, poetic, even exciting. We have to present all the necessary material — and not an ounce more — without slowing our narratives, without resorting to data-dumps or “As-you-know-Bob” moments, without violating the basic principles of point of view.

None of this is easy. But we come to this second instance of world building with certain advantages that we didn’t have the first time. Namely, we now possess an intimate understanding of our worlds. We have unraveled their mysteries, determined how societies function — or don’t — and, most importantly, decided which elements of all that work we did during the first world-build are most important to our stories.

That last is crucial. We will always — ALWAYS — know more about our worlds than our readers do. That’s as it should be. We have to know, to a ridiculous level of detail, our worlds’ histories and mythologies and landscapes. We absolutely do not have to convey all that information to our readers. To do so — and I say this with utmost sensitivity to the effort expended in that initial construction of the world — would bore the poor dears to an early demise. They don’t care that the twelfth king of Hamsterdom was Belchamiethius IV, known to his subjects as “Conquerer of the Exercise Wheel.” They don’t need to know the names of each mountain peak in the Twelve Dunce Cap Range. They don’t want to read a recitation of the Gerbilord’s Prayer in the original Quilmardian.

In all seriousness, I know the temptation. I understand pouring tons of work into a world and wanting to share every detail with our readers. But the fact is, we don’t need to reveal everything in order to justify the work we’ve done. Sometimes, sharing a single necessary detail can communicate the weight and volume of all that remains unseen.

And so this second instance of world building demands that we prioritize. We must decide what our readers have to know in any given moment, and then tell them that much and no more. If we can do so with fluency and grace and perhaps even wit, all the better.

But the point is this: Our initial building of the world is an exercise in excess. We want to figure out everything there is to know about our worlds. We seek every crumb of knowledge, so that we are fully prepared for the creation of our characters and narratives.

The second building of our world, the one for our readers, is an exercise in restraint, in determining what is necessary information, and what is superfluous. It’s not easy, but done correctly it will keep our readers coming back to our worlds again and again.

Keep writing.

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: “Pitch Inside”

In the mid-1980s, my favorite baseball player on the planet was a young pitcher for the New York Mets named Dwight Gooden. Gooden had a meteoric career that was shortened by injuries and chronic drug abuse. But for the first two and a half years of his career, from the beginning of his rookie season in 1984 to mid-season in 1986, he was one of the best pitchers baseball has ever seen. He was only 20 years old when he entered the league, but already he had outstanding velocity, a monster curveball, pinpoint control, and uncommon poise for a player so young.

Why am I starting a writing-tip post with a discussion of Dwight Gooden? Read on…

At the time of his great success, New York Magazine ran a profile of him and a teammate (an equally young, equally talented, equally troubled outfielder named Darryl Strawberry). In the profile there was a picture of Gooden in uniform and you could see scrawled on the underside of the visor of his baseball cap the words “Pitch inside.”

Pitching inside is, quite often, the best way to get hitters out, particularly if the pitcher in question happens to have great velocity and control. When pitched inside, hitters can’t extend their arms fully and thus can’t generate as much power in their swing. Usually. The problem with pitching inside is that if the pitcher doesn’t have quite enough velocity, or if he misses his intended target by even an inch or two, his offering becomes very hittable, often resulting in massive home runs, or at the very least, crisp base hits.

Pitchers can do okay for a while pitching hitters away, but they become great when they take on that risk and throw the ball inside.

High risk, high reward.

Writers need to take risks as well. We can tell a decent story playing it safe, but we flourish when we take chances, when we explore bold ideas for our stories, or create stunningly original worlds, or develop plots that are destined to surprise and captivate our readers.

The Outlanders, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)My first book, Children of Amarid, was a fairly standard epic fantasy, though it had the seeds of more within the nuances of its plot. It was my second novel, though, The Outlanders, that convinced me I could succeed as a writer. The reason was, that second book was different. It introduced a technological, crime-ridden world unlike anything I’d ever tried writing. It created an unusual dynamic among three of my lead characters — two of the characters, who were allies, spoke different languages, and they had to rely on the third for translation. But neither of them trusted that third character.

I struggled with that book far, far more than I had with the first, and I think my struggles were symptomatic of factors that helped the book succeed. It was an ambitious project. It forced me to grow as an artist. Nothing felt familiar or pat, and so the finished product read as something fresh and exciting and innovative. As I say, the first book was fine, but the series won the Crawford Award because of The Outlanders.

It’s easy to advise you to take chances, to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Turning that advice into instruction in the form of concrete steps is more difficult. Every story is different, every project presents its own challenges.

Still, I can say this: It’s easy to grow attached to one particular franchise, one particularly world and set of characters and style of story. Certainly I have written a good deal in the Thieftaker world, and will soon be coming out with new work about Ethan Kaille, Sephira Pryce, et al. The fact is, though, each time I have moved on to a new project, I have tried (admittedly with varying degrees of success) to challenge myself, to force myself to grow.

After the LonTobyn books, I moved to Winds of the Forelands and Blood of the Southlands, which demanded far more sophisticated world building and character work. After those, I turned to Thieftaker, adding historical and mystery elements to my storytelling and limiting my point of view to a single character. I also started working on the Justis Fearsson books, which explored mental health issues and were my first forays into writing in a contemporary setting. Then I took on the Islevale books, time travel/epic fantasies that presented the most difficult plotting issues I’ve ever faced.

We can also challenge ourselves within a particular franchise by shaking up the formula, by changing our approach to plotting, or taking characters and character relationships in new and unexpected directions.

The point is, if we challenge ourselves, if we remind ourselves to “pitch inside,” we will breathe new life into our work, grow as artists, and, likely, have more fun.

Keep writing!

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!