How a World Makes a Story

Whenever I’m writing a secondary world, I always draw a map. Even when I don’t need to—even when the characters aren’t going to be traveling all over that beautiful map I drew. I imagine for some writers they aren’t important. It’s enough to know the distance between certain locations, and the names of the different countries, and that’s it. But I feel like I can’t start without knowing the shape of the world. I often don’t begin to do any world-building before drawing the map.

Part of it is this idea that I don’t know what I’ll need until I get there—I don’t know if I’ll need to know the topography of a certain part of the world until I’m in the middle of the first draft, and a character needs to have an anecdote about it. If I come across that situation, I’d rather be able to pull from an independent document rather than make something up on the spot (though I certainly have done that.)

Last week I talked about my personal process for drawing maps. This week, I’m writing about how all the information that I put into my maps helps me with world-building, characters, and plotting. While everything I’m going to talk about can be accomplished through written world-building, I find that maps do a lot of the same stuff much better and more efficiently than written descriptions. So, here are the four aspects of world-building and plotting for which I rely greatly on maps.Read More »

How I Make a World

I write a lot of secondary worlds, so I draw a lot of maps. Some are fairly simple, some are more detailed. The more detailed ones are for worlds that I’ll have to write in for awhile—novel- or novella-length pieces. In this post, I’ll go through my process for making one of these most detailed maps, because the process for less detailed maps is essentially the same, but with only the specific aspects I need.

This post isn’t meant to be a how-to—it’s just my own system that I’ve developed and modified as I’ve been drawing maps for invented worlds since I was ten. There are a thousand ways to go about map making (one of those thousand being to not make a map at all), and this is just one of them. I’m sharing it because I think it’s interesting, and I haven’t read much from other writers about this part of the creative process. Hopefully it is at least entertaining, and at most it provides some useful tools for fellow writers to improve their world-building.

So, let’s begin.Read More »

No One Thinks of Salt

No one thinks of salt.

Of course, people who live in cities close enough to either pole of the Earth do—they see it on sidewalks and roads and doormats for some period of time every year. They couldn’t not think of it, like they couldn’t not think of shoes. But they don’t really think of it in the way I mean. By “think of,” I mean “think up.” And while this could be applied more broadly, I’m mostly focusing on writers when I say “no one.”

More accurately I should say “no one would think of salt,” but that’s not as snappy. Besides, the idea came to me as “no one thinks of salt!” with an implied “if they have no exposure to it.”

So now that everyone’s confused, I’ll try to start making sense. I’ve lived in Tallahassee, Florida almost my whole life. The city, and the entire county it’s in, has just one snow truck, which practically never gets used. In my whole life living there, it only snowed once—and then it was more sleet than snow. So I definitely didn’t think of salt.

I knew that people salted roads in cities where it snowed, but what I didn’t consider is that sidewalks would be salted too. Now that I live in Iowa City, and I’m experiencing my first northern winter, I’ve realized that this is the case. I’ve also realized that salt gets stuck in the treads of your boots, and ends up all over the floor if you don’t kick them off thoroughly. Had I written a story before I lived here, about a city experiencing a typical, snowy winter, I never would have thought to add the detail of a character having salt caked around their boots. But that kind of inventive, extrapolated detail is what makes good writing, especially in science-fiction and fantasy.

Granted, world-building isn’t everything, and a well-told story with the typical fantasy props (castles, dragons, swords, etc.) can still be fun. But there’s no reason a writer can’t tell a good story and develop a well-realized world. Reading science fiction from the fifties, it always nags at me when nuclear power shows up. Many sci-fi writers used it as some catch-all that could power everything from household appliances to helicopters, rather than fully considering other potential energy sources. As a result, the worlds feel simplistic and flat.

Kim Stanley Robinson on the other hand is an excellent world-builder (though not from the fifties.) In his Mars trilogy, he has the typical tented colonies you might find in any martian story, but he also considers the possibility of cities built into mesas, or under the ice caps, or within lava tubes. His rendition of a colonized Mars feels explorable and deep.

Now back to the salt that no one thinks of. Let’s suppose an Earth that is covered by an enormous ocean, with every human being confined to an equatorial island where it never snows. On this tropical island, fantasy writers might spin tales of an incredible world where ice falls in little droplets from the sky. Science fiction writers might speculate about colonizing the polar ice caps. Would these writers consider the problem of snow obstructing paths, and the need to remove it? Probably. But what would their solutions for this problem be? They’d probably be pretty straightforward, and be more impractical than they’d appear on paper. These writers might imagine snow plows, or heated roads, or awnings that could extend to cover pathways when the snow fell. Maybe these writers would lazily speculate that snow could be channeled through gutters just like rain. Salt, although highly practical, would not be the common representation of a solution in these snow stories. But if some writer were inventive and thoughtful enough to envision salt as a solution, their story would be so much richer than the same-old same-old plows and heated roads.

This is what makes some speculative fiction feel not so speculative. What’s fantastic about another retread of Tolkien’s orcs elves and dwarves? What’s innovative about a domed colony on Mars?

It’s the writers that take the time and consideration to extrapolate, and solve problems from the viewpoint of a character in that world rather than an outsider, that create three-dimensional setting. Beyond speculative fiction, it’s the writers that research, or actually visit the setting of their story and fully observe its complexities, that portray a landscape which feels genuine.

It’s the writers who think of salt that craft worlds a reader can live in even after they’ve stopped reading.

Why Do I Keep Writing Science Fiction?

This is a question that nags at me a lot. Why do I almost exclusively write fantasy and science fiction? I normally try to challenge myself, writing in a format or style or length I’ve never written in before—and yet, I continually steer clear of realistic fiction. It seems childish.

One theory is that I’ve hardly lived at all, so I have hardly anything real to write about, and to fill that cavity I have to shove in gods and phasers. That might be part of it.

It’s not as though I’m actively avoiding it. Whenever I come up with ideas for stories, it happens that the ones that excite me are the fantasy ones. I can’t help what excites me, can I?

And then I realized that speculative fiction is just like all fiction, except the world is made up too. Simple, obvious even—I know. It’s the implications of this that got me really thinking.

As far as content goes, there are three elements of a story. Plot, setting, and character. Of course that’s totally simplified BS, but for the purposes of what I’m getting at here, this is how it is. In realistic fiction (or “fiction” as bookstores group it) the plot and characters are invented, but the setting is the same. In science fiction and fantasy books, world, character, and plot are all invented. And this is why I write science fiction and fantasy. I like to make up the world as well as the characters and plot. Why then is this type of fiction labeled differently in bookstores, if it’s just one degree more of made-upness? Totally superficial reasons, which I don’t know enough about to discuss here.

But let’s look at the actual differences. Having a book set in the real world does make for a different book—it’s not completely superficial. It changes the frame of reference, the immediacy, the way a reader processes a book. But the problem is, this is the case for more than just setting.

Why doesn’t a series like Foundation by Isaac Asimov belong to it’s own genre? The characters and world are made up, but the story is roughly modeled on the fall of the Roman empire, which makes for a different reading experience than if it was totally made up.

And what about a book like  Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving, in which his own life and total fiction are mixed together in every element of the story? The way that reality and fiction interact in that story, and in the real world, definitely effected my comprehension and enjoyment of the book.

And what about my own writing? Although it feels like I’m always writing fantasy, when I look at my work this way, I’m really all over the place. In three of my latest stories, one had an invented setting/partially autobiographical character/invented plot, another a partially real-world setting/invented characters/invented plot, and another an invented setting/invented characters/invented plot.

But as far as I can tell, the division in bookstores is this: invented setting/x character/x plot is one genre, real setting/x character/x plot is another genre, and real setting/real character/real plot is a totally different section of the building. There are other books that are divided out based on specific types of plots (like mysteries) or types of settings (like westerns), which is even more obviously superficial than the division between fiction and fantasy. And even with all this division, there may be more variation between two Fantasy books than between a Sci-Fi novel and a Mystery (which, to niche in this whole other can of worms, kind of reminds me of this.)

Like I said, I don’t know the history of these superficial divisions very well. I’m not trying to explain them, or understand them. I’m just rejecting their ideas that I’d unintentionally internalized, and presenting a more dynamic (though still very simple) way of looking at differences in stories. I’m just telling you why I don’t care that I keep writing science fiction.