Tag Archives: worldbuilding

Viewed Through a Gothic Victorian Lens

Tamara of Uncharted Pages interviewed me recently, which was great fun because she’s an enthusiastic reader of the books, and had some detailed questions to ask me. I had an opportunity to delve a bit more into my own processes as far as worldbuilding and behind the scenes systems are concerned – and by the time I was halfway through the interview I was having serious trauma flashbacks about the spreadsheet drama involved in trying to track the backstories, emotional baggage and sexual histories of a dozen or more complicated central characters.

“Seriously. Even spreadsheets can’t fix everything. I had a few fixed points such as certain ages of characters when particular events happened, and everything else orbited wildly around it. Sometimes I felt like I was juggling hamsters! Strange, sex-obsessed hamsters who liked to set fire to things.”

I miss my Creature Court. But I don’t miss the spreadsheets.

Writing Fantasy: Finding the Words

I had an amazing visit to the local Maritime Museum today, under the guidance of the most excellent Liz. Raeli and Jem had a brilliant time exploring the museum itself, which combined display and video material with some fabulous tactile exhibits such as wheels to spin, enormous brass bells to ring, and the hull of a ship for small people to hide inside (possibly this was not actually there for that purpose).

After stocking up on loot from the shop (an activity book and pirate craft project for Raeli, a pirate slinky for Jem, a book about female crewed ships for me) we were taken upstairs to view the sekrit stuff, namely the archive and private library, plus the many staff. I have to say this is the first time I have used writer credentials to get behind the red velvet curtain of anywhere! The girls were well behaved for a good 10-15 minutes as Liz showed me some of their digitised images and shared some gems about the history of the Derwent river. I already have extra Nancy ideas bubbling away, and plan to go back for more visits when not encumbered with two children with a patience time limit (well, the toddler, anyway. Raeli was a jewel the whole time, and charmingly fascinated with the place).

I’m almost at the end of the draft of the first Nancy novel, and while I’m very pleased with the writing and most importantly the scene-by-scene structure, it’s not ready yet. Now that I know which time periods are going to be relevant to the story, I need to do a lot more research on what Hobart was like in those specific times, and figure out for myself what Nancy and Sylvie Napoleon were doing during those specific years.

But there’s the other thing I need to do as well, which sadly no amount of historical books and visits to museums are going to help me with (unless of course they do). I need to find my words.

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What Rowling Got Right: Worldbuilding as Plot

I got to see the last Harry Potter film last weekend and loved it to bits – it reminded me why I liked the books so much originally, and even redeemed some of the bits I didn’t like about the final book. They conveyed far more sweetness & believability to the Remus/Tonks relationship by cutting out most of what was in the book & sticking with a couple of symbolic shots, and the epilogue actually worked as a visual scene far better than in prose.

But really I did that thing I always do when I go to the cinema – I sat there, let the images wash over me, and thought about writing. The big screen always does that to me – we spend a fortune on tickets and then I spend half the time plotting & replotting my own stories. My brain is particularly directed towards technique at the moment because of the stage I’m at drafting Fury, and HP7.2 really helped me by reminding me of the one writing technique that Rowling does better than almost any other writer: worldbuilding as plot.

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Fantasy with Frocks

Episode 2 of the CreatureCourtCast is up at the Creature Court website. (use the second link if you want to play it on the site instead of downloading). You can also find it over in iTunes.

The theme for this episode is ‘fantasy with frocks.’ Because yes, this is one of those books where clothes get described, a lot. One of my protagonists is a dressmaker, and that means that she sees the world through clothes. When she struggles for metaphors and similes to describe the strange world she is slowly becoming aware of, she uses crafting terms to do so. As she learns about the mysterious Creature Court, and is introduced to them, one of the aspects that stands out for her is the way that they dress: to make statements, to impress each other, to show off.

They are, after all, part-animal, and as I mention in the podcast, we have a long cultural tradition of anthropomorphising animals and putting clothes on them. Puss in Boots with his floppy hat and awesome footwear! Jemima Puddleduck in her bonnet. Cat from Red Dwarf in his tailored space suits.

Clothes also form plot points in Power and Majesty. The dress pictured on the cover represents a turning point in the story, and I read one of the key scenes for that dress aloud in this episode of the CreatureCourtCast. Ashiol and the Creature Court find out about Velody’s existence because of the dress, and it also introduces the idea that a person’s magic (though the word ‘magic’ is never used in the books) can bleed out into things they make. This will be important later…

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Stealth Worldbuilding & the Other Kind of Standalone Fantasy

I have been talking this week about the value of standalone fantasy, and composing a list of my favourite single volume fantasy novels, just to prove that yes they exist, and yes there are good ones. But what came up most commonly in the discussion surrounding those posts is how many standalone fantasy novels actually are less standalone than they appear – once you start reading the other works in that author’s backlist, you may discover that you have in fact been subject to Stealth Worldbuilding.

This isn’t just the province of fantasy, of course. One of my favourite things about Mary Wesley novels was how often one of the sweet young men in the story would turn out to be one of the many nephews of Calypso from The Camomile Lawn. I have been informed that my new favourite YA author Sarah Dessen does much the same thing, which is hugely exciting.

There are many fantasy authors I can think of who did this – creating fantasy epics one book at a time. Jennifer Roberson’s Cheysuli books followed characters down a family lineage, each volume having a different first person POV. Terry Pratchett, after writing a direct sequel to his first Discworld novel, went on to build up his world with over 30 individual books, which allowed him to explore just about every nook and cranny of his fantasy world. Protagonists of one book become local colour & scenery in another – and his penchant for sequels mean there are several mini-arcs within the huge run of books, but you can pick and choose which order to read them in. I read them based on how much I thought I would like them! These days many of his “franchise arcs” have run out of juice, and it’s the more standaloney standalones which get better critical response, though Granny Weatherwax and the witch culture have been thoroughly rehabilitated through the marvellous YA Tiffany Aching books.

There’s something very appealing about the form of stealth worldbuilding that can occur in a series of linked standalones. Accessibility is at a premium, with none of those “Book 7 of the Grandiddiad” labels to scare off new readers. The backlist can work in all directions. But at the same time, there is a pleasure in continuity, in development and consequence for characters as well as a world. As a reader, there’s a deep fannish satisfaction that comes from even small hints of what happened to beloved characters, years down the line. I remember watching Robotech the Next Generation, desperate for any hints as to what had happened to the protagonists of the former series – nibbling on the few bones available.

The stealth worldbuilding in Discworld has now built up into such vast proportions that one can play a computer game that takes you from place to place, and so many of them are familiar! Even better, there’s always an unexplored corner to learn about. The most recent book, Unseen Academicals, revealed that there was this whole subculture that had been going on in Ankh-Morpork all along – the unfolding of which didn’t seem remotely artificial to me, as this is exactly what happened when I discovered the Premier League.

A throwaway line in one book can become the major plotline of the next… or ten books later.

There are of course standalone series which follow the same protagonist through a series of “standalone” novels. This is particularly popular these day with urban fantasy, and it’s not coincidental that this is also a traditional format for crime fiction. Character development if you read them in the right order, but the ability to experience the beginning, middle and end of a plot in one volume.

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Dancing about Architecture

We seem to be on track for Christmas – only more house cleaning and food shopping to do. I woke up this morning with the excellent news that Arsenal beat Hull 3-0 and promptly demanded a celebratory sleep-in. Well more to the point I was up for too much in the middle of the night and needed a sleep-in, but whatever. I haven’t had one in a very very long time and Jemima was bizarrely compliant, allowing me to sleep for most of the morning. Raeli was less compliant, of course. 😀

I’m trying to finish up the last couple of work-ish things before I say to hell with it and just allow myself to be on holiday. I wrote a story for [info] girliejones‘s anthology of suburban fantasy, Sprawl, but I gave it to my honey to read and he agrees it needs another act. Damn it. Might have to work late tonight. At least another act means I don’t have to beg and plead for an exception to be made for her wordcount rules…

I sent the finished Creature Court maps off to the publisher today – I know it’s pointless because the chances of them still being in the office between now and January are next to nothing, but they are finished and that is the important thing. I really want to post some of the drafts and talk about the process that went into producing them – a fascinating collaboration with my mother, one of the most professional and efficient artists that I have ever met – but it feels a bit squicky to do that when a) the publisher hasn’t approved them yet and b) Mum might not actually like her early drafts being put on display. So if I do that it will be much closer to the publication date and with her permission.

Which means of course that anything I say about it will be without illustration and thus not nearly as interesting as it could be. Still, I wanted to state for the record that despite some of the stress and drama of our first couple of map meetings the process as a whole was incredibly cool.
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This Is Your Brain on Novel

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I want to post my review of Booklife by Jeff VanderMeer, but apparently my brain is still sorting that one out (or rather is pushing everything else to the back so it can concentrate on turning stacks of square bracketed pleas of desperation into half-decent fight scenes), so instead I will share some links of other people’s thoughts on writing, and how it relates to meeee. Because right now, NaNo being NaNo, it’s hard to see past the end of the novel on my face.

Did I say novel? I meant nose. But mostly I meant novel.

Jo Walton writes on the fantasy technique of madey-uppy words – when it works to add depth of worldbuilding, and when it makes you look like a tool.

This fills me with due apprehension because I am indeed writing book 3 of a trilogy which does exactly this thing. Only hopefully in the depth of worldbuilding way and not the tool way. I have deliberately pulled a messed up hybrid of French, Italian, Latin and English into play, and have insisted in some cases of using particular words where ordinary English ones would do. In all cases, though, it was when the ordinary English version was not just ordinary, but so overused that it came with far too many connotations.

‘Princess’ for instance. It’s one of those words I can’t write with a straight face any more. Not with Disney’s finest staring out at me from my daughter’s schoolbag every day. I also banished ‘night’ and ‘girl’ because it was the only way, I decided, to avoid using them in every single sentence in the book.

Most of the trilogy, incidentally, takes place at night.

Anyway, I will hug my madey-uppy words to myself and brace myself for the displeasure and judging looks of [info] girliejones. I solemnly swear I have not added any apostrophes in the middle of names (cough except where grammatically accurate).

Meanwhile, Scott Westerfeld talks about “Passages of Disbelief,” a lovely term to describe that moment when the ordinary people of the familiar world are faced with magic, or aliens, or the Other for the first time. [I have lots of this in my book too, as it’s basically urban fantasy that happens to also be otherworld fantasy]

Reading his post my first thought was ‘ooh, Buffy did lots of that, especially that lovely Oz reaction to vampires being real’ and Scott promptly linked to an essay he wrote on those moments in Buffy. The essay is awesome, and makes me want to a) buy the book (damn you, SmartPop, are you never satisfied?) and b) watch all the Buffy. Like I have time for that. Though it might help me with those damned fight scenes…

The Art of Meta-Documents

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I had an attack of the plots today, and accidentally figured out the structure and events of three quarters of Saturnalia, Book III of the Creature Court. Can I hear a woohoo? Yes, I did sell a trilogy without a great deal of idea of what happened in Book III. How could I know, when I had no idea of the surprises Book II would throw at me?

So yes, plot. Part of the reason I wanted to NaNo up the first 50K of this ms before I go back to my rewrite of Book 2 was because it involves a reveal of backstory previously only hinted at, and I wouldn’t know exactly what that backstory WAS until I wrote it. I am not a pre-plotter. I used to be, but it didn’t work for me. I generally have one or two future events in my head, and I try to work towards them, but usually end up taking the scenic route.

This makes meta-documents, as discussed in Scott Westerfeld’s post as part of the Westerbalestier Nano-tips series particularly important to me. I’m not one of those fantasy writers who has their worldbuilding beautifully laid out before they start working (though my cartographer informs me that this would be a Much Better Idea), I wait until the world turns up in crumbs and tidbits in my sentences.

Then I write it down somewhere important and memorable, because if I’m writing fast, chances are that some other worldbuilding that is Entirely Contradictory will turn up later, and that is the road to insanity and tears.

So, my current meta-documents, ie the docs used to keep track of the stuff I need to, include:

Map [hard copy, biro scrawl in notebook, now an ever expanding series of nicely inked sketches drawn by my mother]

Fasti/Calendar of Festivals [Excel, loosely based on the Roman calendar but with some extreme Tansyfication]

Glossary [a latecomer to the party, only constructed after the 3rd draft of Power & Majesty, housed in Zulupad, a platform so awesome it deserves a post of its own – it also now exists in a word doc cos editors want a less spoilery version included at the back of the book]

Playlist! [itunes, one for the whole series, separate ones for each book, mini-playlists for characters who deserve it, and a Make Write Good super playlist for writing fastly and brilliantly]

Saturnalia page [Excel, a list of important stuff the third book has to address or include, and my day by day projected & actual Nano wordcount]

Keeping Track page [Excel, used for wordcount goals for first two books, notes to self for next edits of first two books]

Character Timelines [Excel, column for each major character, keeping track of intersecting points of backstory and ages]

Courtesi and Alliances page [Excel, more backstory info, this time showing names and details minor characters and who are allied to whom, etc. Also includes all the words/descriptors I’ve used for my skybattles, and which animal everyone turns into]

Power and Majesty timeline [Excel, this listed every scene & chapter in book 1 and kept track of what day they happened on – now out of date because I suck and didn’t update it when adding new scenes with recent edit]

Okay, that’s enough to make my head hurt. The important thing is that apart from the Fasti/Calendar of Festivals (well, four months worth of it), all of this was constructed during or after the writing process, not before. The downside of this is that I haven’t done it all that efficiently – I only started a real glossary late in the day, and probably wouldn’t have started or needed half of those Excel worksheets if I’d had it running from the start. In fact this is a problem because I have several times edited or added information in only one place, and had conflicting dates in backstory, etc. Aaargh!

On the other hand, if I’d realised how much STUFF there was to keep track of in these books (which honestly are not as complicated to read as they are to write and edit), I might have been too freaked out to even get started. So on the whole not having a plan is still the best plan for me.

However, next time I may draw the map first. To keep my Mum happy.

Oh, who am I kidding? I totally won’t do that.

Cartography Makes me Cry

I’ve been the person who rolls my eyes at any book that features horses and maps.  As a creative writing teacher, I always warned wannabe fantasy writers about the dangers of getting so swept up in the detail of their worldbuilding that they never got around to writing the actual books.

I deliberately set the Creature Court trilogy in one city, with no travelling.  No horses.  Back in the Mocklore days I deliberately created a fantasy country small enough that people could reasonably walk everywhere, and promptly gave my heroine a magic ship to make sure there were no horses required, and no one would need a map to find their way around.

I’m still anti-horse.

Of course, even fantasy books without maps have maps.  The author needs something to keep track of their imaginary landscapes, to make sure they don’t accidentally end up with their characters walking in the wrong direction, or a city miraculously appearing on the wrong side of a continent.

Trust me, it happens.

With Mocklore, I had a nice little island sketched out in coloured textas.  It was rough, but no one was ever going to see it but me.  Likewise, when I was constructing the city of Aufleur for the Creature Court, I scrawled a general impression of what went where, for my own reference.  I used two colours of biro.  It – wasn’t good.  But hey, no one was going to see it but…

Yeah, so apparently the publishers want a real map.  My first reaction to this was to squee heartily because they were making me maps and obviously they would call upon the pet cartographers they kept on retainers for just such an occasion – ah, wait.  Apparently maps are not in the least like cover art, and it’s up to the author to provide them personally.  If I hadn’t had my very artistic mother present during the discovery of this information, I might well have hyperventilated.

The process is actually kind of exciting.  Mum managed to take my extremely dodgy map sketch and turned it into something that looks like a real city.  She even coped valiantly with the fact that Aufleur is based on Rome, not the Rome that exists in other books of maps, but the Rome that was lodged in my head after staying there for a month back in 2002.

(apparently that Rome does not actually exist, I know, it made me cry too)

We had a map meeting today which basically consisted of me panicking because my theatre is on the wrong side of the city, and hang on I think maybe it has to be on the district it shares a name with because that would make sense, right, only that means I have to change the actual text, and I don’t know where that street is at all, and oh god EVERY time I open the ms document I find some other reference to a map-related thing that bears no relation to the biro sketch I made a million years ago and I don’t actually KNOW how lakes work, why would anyone need to know how lakes work, and I have two different names for the gates of the city and can you have gates without actually having walls and maybe I do have walls, I don’t know because my characters have never walked past them, and OMG MY RIVER HAS NO NAME.

My mother at this point is giggling madly at me.  “How do you write a whole book and never name the river>?” she asked.


Ahem.  Long story short.  Forget what I said before.  Get your map sorted long before you reach edit/proof stage of the manuscript.  Seriously.  The drawing it up and making it look pretty is not the part that takes the time.  It’s the failing to recognise that you’ve lost a road somewhere and you can’t remember what it was supposed to be called anyway and if you refer to docks then you should probably know where they are and TRAIN TRACKS ARE SUPPOSED TO GO SOMEWHERE!


Also, my mother is awesome.  That is all.