Monday, September 24, 2007

World Building and Why It’s Important for all Genres(plus a writing exercise for the keen)

Phase I: Everyone builds worlds
It doesn’t matter if you write contemporary, historical, chick-lit, suspense, mystery, or paranormal, world building is key to your book. It sets the date, time, place, and scene usually within the first few chapters. Why? Because you want to draw the reader into the world you are creating.

Example: A Love So Fierce, by Joanna McGauran, published by Dell Books (historical)
Opening chapter 1: Picardy, October 1349
Adam Dunbarton, second son of the Baron Bruce Dunbarton of Castle on Tyne in Northumbria, had journeyed down to London to cross the English Channel to claim his betrothed bride, and now, some days past the middle of October, he had landed in the English-held port of Calais.
At another time, the city of Calais, with its pretty girls and the gaiety of its entertainments, was well worth a day’s visit, even for a man on such a mission. But for the second summer and fall, the terrible plague known as the Black Death had raged through its crowded waterfront and cobbled streets…..

Well what did we learn as a reader? The place (Picardy) the date (October 1349) and we know it’s historical by the description of the port, Black Death, cobbled streets. We also know his mission – to get his betrothed bride. You also get the feeling that by the use of the words “English-held port of Calais” that a war either just took place or is still taking place.

Example: Rapture by Renee Field, published by Cerridwen Press, release date September 27, 2007.
Chapter 1 – mid-way
Not once had Seth touched the offered whiskey after his first taste of it a decade ago. Not that the old man minded. Said he didn’t like to drink alone and it was simply bad manners not to offer up a drink to a friend. Seth left it at that.
Later when Jack would waddle bow-legged down to the shore and haul his old bones into his beloved dory, Seth would pour the drink down the sink and wash out the cup. If he still followed the old ways, he’d have offered the drink to one of the gods. Not anymore.
The fact that old Jack was the only one Seth allowed on his property to somewhat befriend him gave the old man something to do. Not that Seth thought he could actually get rid of the old geezer, unless he resorted to his old tricks. No, Seth knew Jack’s days were lonely and for the past ten years that was something he came to understand all too well. That, more than anything, was why he had allowed the old man his customary monthly visit.
Today, knowing Jack had rowed across the bay to make sure he was okay gave him pause. A gust of wind told Seth that wasn’t wise.
Forcing his body to move three more steps, he watched as Jack got up to test the wind.
“She’s gonna be a big one. You remember the last big one we had around here. Felt as if old Poseidon was stirring up the water with one of those fork thingys…”
Seth choked on that image. Fork thingy isn’t what I’d call it. He tried hard not to give in to a chuckle.
“We lost some fifteen boats that year. Wait a sec…wasn’t that about the same time you came here?” The not-so-innocent look wasn’t missed by Seth.
As always, he said nothing. He remembered that night well. His fury had matched the seas, acting like a blanket, comforting him with the knowledge that it too was mad with the decision that had been forced upon him.
Rolling his shoulders to get a knot out, he strained again under the weight of the rope, thinking he should have built a smaller vessel. Two more feet and she should be safe.
Seth knew he was in for a long night. It wasn’t the coming hurricane that would keep him awake. It was the pull of the sea he’d have to fight with every ounce of his willpower. It was times like this he cursed himself.
“You’d think after a decade with us, Seth, you’d learn to communicate a bit more,” said old Jack, standing on shaky legs. “Anyway, just came to see ya. Oh yeah, there’s some rich dude docked at the government wharf asking about you. You know he’s the spittin’ image of you, almost,” said Jack, spitting out a wad of the tobacco he’d stuffed in his mouth.
Seth knew what the almost referred to. A scar like his wasn’t easy to hide, not that he cared or even tried.

What did we learn? Immediately the reader senses this is a paranormal romance. The reference Seth makes to the gods and Poseidon help to alert the reader to their significant. Also, the reader learns that Seth has been banished to the land for a decade and that he’s scared. These are questions that will help to entice the reader to continue reading. The reader also knows for the language that it’s a contemporary novel.

Two very different examples, but each set the time, date and place right off the bat. They came out swinging. They wanted to grip the reader and immediately make them realize what type of world they would be reading.

Strange writing exercise that makes you go “what the*@*@” but works:
I want you to use your horoscope sign. If you’re a Gemini use that and if you’re a Sagittarius use that. Now, it’s up to you to determine how to use your sign. You can ascribe your sign to be a place/person/moon etc. You have ten minutes to write your opening scene, at least two paragraphs and I would like you to add at least one character’s name (you get to make that up) and place them in that scene. From this you will set the tone, so keep that in mind.

Phase II: Paying Attention to Detail
Okay, you’ve established your world – you’ve set the time, place and now what you’re asking yourself, well, what makes it stand out. It’s the small things. It’s the paying attention to detail that will make your world, again whether it’s contemporary, historical, chick-lit, suspense, mystery or paranormal – small things matter when you build your world.

Example: Animal Farm by George Orwell, published by Penguin Books
Moses, who was Mr. Jones especial pet, was a spy and a tale-bearer, but he was also a clever talker. He claimed to know of the existence of a mysterious country called Sugarcandy Mountain, to which all animals went when they died. It was situated somewhere up in the sky, a little distance beyond the clouds, Moses said. In Sugarcandy Mountain it was Sunday seven days a week, clover was in season all the year round, and lump sugar and linseed cake grew on the hedges.

What are the small details that Moses, the spy talks about? Sugarcandy Mountain – which is paradise/heaven to the animals is what makes this believable. Orwell takes two sentences to aptly describe this make-believe place. Why? Because the reader needs to visualize it and believe it. If the reader can’t believe the lure of Sugarcandy Mountain, they will either stop reading or get frustrated.

Example: The Dream-Hunter by Sherrilyn Kenyon, published by St. Martin’s Paperback.
There were two items. One appeared to be a komboloi – a string of worry beads similar in style to a small rosary that some Greeks used when stressed, only she’d never seen anything like this before. The age and design of it appeared to predate any form of komboloi she’d ever heard of. It had fifteen iridescent green beads made of some unknown stone that had been carved with tiny intricate family scenes of people wearing clothes unlike any she’d seen before in her research. The carvings were interspersed with five gold beads that were engraved with three lightning bolts piercing a sun.
(later on…)
Her heart pounding, she turned the largest coin over to look at the back. There was the same foreign symbol that marked the komboloi. A sun pierced by three lightning bolts. And with it were the unknown words on top of the Greek: May Apollymi protect us.

What did we learn? We learned that the komboloi is different enough to make us wonder is there more to this artifact. We learned that the symbolism on the komboloi is also used on the large coin our character finds, which starts her heart to accelerate. Why? There is never such thing as a coincidence in a book, it’s there for a purpose – the reader has to keep reading (hence the mystery is set) to figure out the why of things.

When building worlds things have to work. If our above author had used the word komboloi to describe a modern watch, we wouldn’t get it. If Orwell used the phrase Sugarcandy Mountain to mean the slaughter house, the tone would be something else entirely. These are the small points to consider when building your world.

Phase III: Making up words in your world.
Now, if you’re writing contemporary or historical this might be difficult but not impossible. Think back to our first example when the author referenced the Black Death. Your character could decide to call it something that is both made-up but personal. Even paranormal authors who make up words need to explain them. You might understand your word but your reader won’t unless you place it in context.

Example: In Rapture I made up a number of words so the reader knew it was paranormal. I created canine-sea creatures called Tartahounds.

Twice in two days an undersea rupture from the bowels of the Earth had spewed forth a dozen of Hades’ legionnaires and their demonic Tartahounds. Close to four centuries ago, Hades had tried to overtake the undersea kingdom, believing it was his right to overthrow Oceanus’ children. It had taken a massive counterattack with all the Titan leaders from the seven seas working together to finally defeat Hades. However the toll had been enormous.
The legionnaires were deadly with their vapor assaults, but the Tartahounds were even more lethal. With a body the shape of an electric eel and its three canine heads, Tartahounds were blind and relied on their ability to scent their prey. One bite and their poisonous venom could render a Titan warrior unconscious.

And throughout I used the word mardom to refer to his people—the Titans and Sirens of the North Seas.

Example: Throughout Christine Feehan’s Dark anthology she uses the word Carpathian.
In Dark Gold, her character very early on recounts the following. “Without his mate, a Carpathian male lost all wants, needs, emotions after two hundred years. He lived in an abyss, void, and from that moment on he was at risk of turning vampire. The longer he survived, as the centuries passed, the Carpathian distanced himself more and more from his community and all it stood for. Only two things could save him from his empty, desperate fate. He could choose to meet the dawn and end his life, or a miracle might happen and he would find his lifemate.”
We learn immediately that Carpathians are another species. We also learn they have a problem—they need to find a lifemate to feel emotions, or they chance turning into a vampire. Thus the premise of all her Dark books.

Writing exercise II:
Grab hold of the nearest item/object. I want you to make up a name for that item and going back to your first writing exercise now create a scene using your item. Don’t forget you will need to explain what it is, the relevance to the story/character it portrays. You have 10 minutes. Then I want you to keep that piece of paper.

Writing exercise III: Adding scent/texture to your scene. The first scent I want you to add to a new scene is sulphur – and keep in mind, depending on the world you’ve created sulphur could be a pretty smell with aphrodisiac, medicinal, hallucinogenic properties or stink to the heavens. Then give that scent texture.

Example:The metallic sulphur smell radiated out toward the town, distilling orange pebbled rain the size of golf balls. Everyone ran for cover.

Everyone world builds to create a novel. And writers need to pay attention to the small details to make the world believable. Using made up words can add a new dimension to your world but always clarify what the word means and the context to the story. Giving texture to your world gives it layers and can conjure up immediate happy memories or dark painful ones depending on what the writer wants to achieve.

I always map out my worlds because I either write paranormal or fantasy, but even if you have a modern setting you need to do research. For me, I keep a list of index cards with made up words, their meaning and relevance to the story or characters I’ve created. That’s my little trick to keep things organized and straight in my head.

Check out: “Fantasy World building Questions” prepared by Patricia C. Wrede, copyright 1996 ( She provides a comprehensive list of questions one should consider when making up worlds. The World Builder Project page ( will link you with more research material. Good luck!

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