writing

The Hard Part

Last week I saw something reposted on Twitter about a writer admitting that she doesn’t really like the process of writing. She likes having written, but the process is difficult and frustrating.

There are days when I can totally relate, though while I do like having written, the part I really love is “going to write.” I love coming up with story ideas and characters, doing research and worldbuilding, even figuring out plots — all the stuff that falls under the category of “prewriting.”

The hard, and less fun, part comes when it’s time to put all that stuff into words. Sometimes it’s the words that are hard, finding a way to convey those things in your head. Sometimes it’s the nitty gritty of the plot, when you go beyond the big-picture arcs and need to come up with specific scenes that develop the plot.

That’s ironic when you consider how many times writers have people tell them that they have this great idea for a book, and if the writer will write it they can split the income 50/50. I think that happens at least once per booksigning (there seem to be people who go to every booksigning just to approach writers to tell them about their brilliant idea and present them with this proposition) and at just about every party where we meet new people who learn what we do.
New person: So, what do you do?
Writer: I’m a writer. I write books.
New person: Really? I have this amazing idea for a book. I should tell it to you, you can write it, and we can split the money it makes. I’m sure it’ll be a bestseller.
Writer: Oops, I need to go refill my drink. It was nice meeting you.

Ideas come all the time to writers. We don’t need to buy them from others. I’ll never get to all the ideas I want to write. Writing is the hard part, the part that takes time and real effort. That “brilliant” idea would probably take a ton of development and probably isn’t all that different from dozens of other things already on the market.

There are certainly days when the actual writing is fun, when I can see the scene playing out in my head like a movie, and all I have to do is describe it, and those words come so easily that I can forget I’m writing and feel like I’m just watching a movie. I usually love my characters, so I enjoy spending time with them. But a lot of the time, it really does feel like work, finding the right words, figuring out how to make things happen to get to the event I need. It’s at the end of one of those days when it’s been a real struggle but I still manage to get there that I love having written.

Sometimes I fantasize about being able to plug my brain into my computer so that the brilliant book in my head will just pour into the computer, but I suspect even if I could do that, the book would still require a lot of work. That brilliant book in the head is generally only a highlight reel or a trailer for the real book that has to be written. It’s the good parts, the scenes that come to life, without all the work of stitching those pieces together in a logical order that flows with good pacing. In other words, the hard part about writing.

Even if I could find someone to write my ideas for me, so that I just got to do the fun part without the hard part, I don’t think I would. I’m too proprietary with my ideas. I couldn’t hand them over to anyone else because no one else would be able to bring them to life the way I would. And so, the hard part is the price I pay to get to make up fun stuff and be able to share it with others. If I don’t write it, I can’t share it with others, which means I don’t make money, which means I’d have to get a different kind of job, and I have no idea what I’d do.

My Books

Timelines

I’ve joked that I’m some kind of weird Time Lord because I have a bit of an obsession with time, even though I don’t really feel its passing. I need to wear a watch or have a clock in view to have any idea what time it is, but I’m also obsessively punctual. I hate being late, and I like having at least a general schedule. I like to observe anniversaries of even small things, noting how long ago it was when things happened, but I think that’s mostly so I’ll be aware of the passage of time. If I don’t pay attention to that sort of thing, I can lose years in my head.

I tend to apply this to my writing, as well. I keep calendars so I’ll know what’s happening when within a book, but then timelines can get complicated because it takes a lot longer to write and publish a book than it usually takes for the events in the book to happen, and that means a series will end up taking place further and further into the past, even if it started in the present.

Take the Enchanted, Inc. books. I wrote the first one in the fall of 2003, with the idea that if it sold it was likely to be published in 2005 (and I was right), so I plotted it with that in mind. I wrote book 2 in 2004, and its events immediately followed those of the first book, so it was still set in 2005, but it came out in 2006, so we were starting to fall behind, and it got worse from there. For the most part, it doesn’t make a huge difference when the books were set, since I don’t put in any obvious timestamps, until I got to where I was about 10 years ahead of the books and people started asking why Katie didn’t have a cell phone and why people didn’t just look things up on their iPhones. In 2005, it wouldn’t have been so odd for someone not to have a cell phone. At that time, I just had a tiny flip phone, and I seldom used it. It was mostly for travel, in case I had car trouble. With Katie’s life, I might not have bothered with one. They didn’t introduce iPhones until 2007. You could get some Internet on phones before then, but it wasn’t nearly as common. Cameras on phones were available, but they weren’t very good and most of them didn’t do video. The shift toward readily available digital cameras and video cameras you could put in your pocket did end up becoming part of the plot for the last book, and by that time we were well over a decade past the events of the book.

The only real way to avoid the books getting so far behind reality is to skip the events ahead to when the book is getting published, but that means missing a year or so in the life of the characters, unless you publish a lot of books a year. And then there’s the fact that people don’t necessarily read them when they’re being published. There are still people just discovering the Enchanted, Inc. books, so they’re reading about 2005 in 2021, but since I don’t put any date stamps in the books, it’s not clear that it’s meant to be 2005. The copyright date might be a hint, but that only works for the first book. You’d have to be obsessive enough to try to work out a timeline based on the copyright of the first book and hints given about when events are taking place to know when the books are set.

I started writing the Lucky Lexie books in the fall of 2019, with the idea of them being set in 2020. Then 2020 happened, and setting the books then would have totally changed everything. Since I didn’t want to deal with the pandemic, I decided to keep them in a vague, eternal quasi-present. I’m still treating them like they’re happening around now when it comes to technology levels and gauging what would have been going on for the characters in their backstories. It makes me feel kind of old to realize that most of the main characters in those books would have been in high school with the early Enchanted, Inc. books were first being published. Everything would have been online for them already and cell phones were pretty common, but they probably wouldn’t have had smart phones while they were in high school and would have been in high school in the age of blogs, before social media got big.

Because of the time lag, if I were to look at when the Enchanted, Inc. characters were in high school or college, it would be in the early 90s. Rod is about four years older than Owen, but Owen skipped some grades in school, so they were in college together for a couple of years. The way I’ve calculated it, Rod is in the college class of 1994, and that means he’s not much younger than I am, so his and Owen’s college experience wouldn’t have been too different from mine. Cell phones wouldn’t have been common, and the Internet was still in its infancy. They might have been able to get e-mail on the school network and would have subscribed to mailing lists, maybe been on Usenet, but the Web as we know it wouldn’t have been there. They might have had desktop computers in their dorm rooms, but laptops were still rare and were pretty clunky. Katie’s a few years younger than Owen, so things would have been a bit different for her by the time she got to college.

There was a huge shift around 1995 so that the world before was very different from the world after, and there was another big shift around 2007-2008. As a writer, if you’re writing contemporary (ish) fiction set in the “real” world, you need to keep in mind when your characters came of age and how their lives fit around these shifts, especially if the backstory is part of the plot or if you’re doing a backstory story. A story about Rod and Owen in college wouldn’t take cell phones into consideration. It would be a lot easier to have someone be totally out of touch. I couldn’t do that for a story about Lexie’s friends in high school or college (or for events in those characters’ pasts that affect the current storylines).

That’s what makes secondary world fantasy so much fun to write. There’s less worry about how the passage of time between books affects the story. Readers aren’t going to wonder why your characters don’t have smart phones in a book you wrote in 2003 that they’re reading in 2021.

Maybe I should put a timeline for the Enchanted, Inc. books on my website. Some authors revise books to update them when they get the rights back, but I don’t have the rights to those early books since they’re still selling, and I don’t think I want to rewrite them, anyway, since the technological shifts end up tying into the plots. If I give everyone in the early books iPhones, the “everyone has cameras now and can record magic” issue can’t just come up in the last book.

writing

Reworking Priorities

I reworked my project priority plan last week. I’d let myself play with that fantasy project because I thought it would be quick and easy. After all, I’d already plotted it and the characters had been in my head for thirty years. I could just dash that book off.

Ha! I ended up totally replotting it, and that made it harder to write because I had to detach myself from what was already there and find the new direction. But then as I diverged more from the original book, the characters started shifting, so they were no longer the people I started with. The writing was a lot slower than I go on any other projects. That “quick and easy” book was taking me twice as long as the other things I could be working on.

So I decided to backburner it. I had something come up that I need to work on pretty quickly (a short piece), and I need to get to work on the fourth mystery book. I’ll let the fantasy book rest a bit while I get other things out of the way. That might help me solidify the new version in my head so it’s easier to write.

And as soon as I made that decision, I really made progress on the other things I need to work on. I got a shorter piece outlined and have written a thousand words on it, and I finally came up with the story for the fourth mystery. I need to flesh out some things, but I have the crime, the victim, the killer, the motive, and the red herrings. I’d felt like I was dragging for so long, and now I’ve made a good burst of progress.

I need to go back and do some new character development and worldbuilding on the fantasy to flesh it out for the new direction, but I can play with that in my off hours after I get my other work done. I’m aiming to have the fourth Lexie book out around July 4, so I need to get moving on that. Mostly, I have an idea for Halloween that I can’t wait to play with, but I don’t want to skip ahead so much in the characters’ lives, so I’m going to fit in a July 4 book and a late summer/early fall (start of the school year) book. If I can get them written. I have the main plots for both of them sort of planned, though I need to dig into specifics.

fantasy

The Taste of Memories

Some fantasy novels are notorious for an emphasis on food. We get loving descriptions of feasts and know exactly what the characters eat on their journeys. Reading the Shire portions of either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings will make you hungry, since hobbits love their food.

Food can be an important facet of worldbuilding. I have a writer friend who creates cuisines for each of the cultures in his fantasy world, figuring out what ingredients and spices they’d have and how that would come together to make the kinds of foods that culture would eat and where food fits into each culture.

I don’t seem to be that kind of writer. I’m lucky if I remember that my characters need to eat. The copyeditor on my Enchanted, Inc. books used to joke that she was the designated Jewish mother of my characters because she’d make notes asking how long it’s been since the characters had eaten and suggesting I put in a mention of them getting food if they’d gone too long without a meal. Figuring out what they’d be eating so I could describe it wouldn’t even occur to me.

Which is odd, when I think about it, because I love to cook. I like trying new recipes, and I put a lot of thought into menu planning. I base my meal plans not only on what ingredients are available and what I’m hungry for, but also on the weather, the mood I’m in, and whether it’s any kind of special occasion.

I also seem to link food to memories and emotions. The food I’m eating when something that makes me feel really emotional happens will forever be linked in my mind with that event or emotion. There’s a recipe I’ve never been able to make myself eat, even though it was something I like, because the first time I made it, I got some upsetting news while I was cooking, and now in my mind, that food is what “upsetting” tastes like. There are also positive associations, foods that make me happy when I eat them because I associate them with something good.

This week, I’m reclaiming a couple of foods. One is one of my favorite bread recipes. I just about live on this bread from fall through winter and even into spring. It’s hearty and travels well, so I bake a loaf and cut slices to take with me to conventions so I can have tea and bread in my room before I have to face people. Until this year, my main emotional connection to this bread is conventions. The taste makes me think of quiet mornings in a hotel room. But this year, I’d just baked a loaf before the big deep freeze and power outage. It was good that I had it because it was something I could eat without needing power to cook it, but because of that, the taste started making me think of freezing mornings spent huddled in a blanket by my fireplace, worrying about whether I’d get power back, whether my pipes would freeze. After I got power back, I didn’t want to touch that bread. I was too busy cooking other things for breakfast. The last part of the loaf got moldy, which had never happened before. I’ve never made that bread last long enough to go bad.

I didn’t want to ruin this bread for myself, so since it got cool again this week, I made another loaf. I’m remembering how much I like it, and I’m trying to move away from the bad memories. I guess it helps that now that the cold week is well into the past and I know it came out okay for me, I can look back on it somewhat fondly as a kind of adventure (in the same way, I get nostalgic about things like having the flu because I don’t remember the misery, only the coziness of snuggling up in blankets and letting myself watch movies all day).

I also made chili for dinner last night because I’d started associating chili with that week. It was the first thing I made when I got power back. I’d run out of things I could quickly heat up, so I had to cook something when I got the chance, and this was the sort of thing that could be done fairly quickly or could simmer for a long time. That turned out to be the day I got power back for good, and that linked the chili to my power outage. Now I’ve associated it with something different.

Oddly enough, I don’t seem to have the same issue with the beef stew I lived on during the outage and reheated when I got power. Maybe because it doesn’t have such a distinctive flavor or because it’s something I have frequently while the chili is a relatively new recipe and I don’t yet have other memories built around it.

Anyway, maybe I should add more food to my books since it does link so strongly to emotions. I wonder what things my characters might avoid eating because the last time they ate it something bad happened, and now that flavor is what that negative emotion tastes like.

writing life

Avoiding Intensity

Apologies for skipping the Friday post. I found out Thursday evening that I had an appointment for my COVID vaccine Friday morning, so I spent Friday morning driving across the metro area, waiting in traffic, and then getting the shot before driving in heavy traffic back across the metro area and then promptly collapsing. The drive was far worse than the shot itself. I ended up just having some soreness on my arm for a couple of days. It didn’t occur to me until later that I’d totally forgotten to post a blog.

One issue I’ve run into in the past year or so is that I’ve become very conflict-averse. I always have been, to some extent. I’m the weirdo who doesn’t necessarily want an emotionally intense reading or viewing experience. I worry far too much about the characters and get way too invested for me to be able to cope when really bad things happen to them. When I had my “hide behind the sofa” moments as a kid, it wasn’t generally because I was scared, but rather because things were so intense I couldn’t bear it. I still will occasionally flip ahead in a book if things are getting to be too much so I can see how it works out, and then I can go back and read the intense part without so much worry.

It’s not the big action scenes that are the problem. It’s more the emotional low points, what they call in romance writing “the black moment,” when it seems absolutely impossible for things to work out. A lot of the time, that may even come before the big action scene in the superhero movies, when all seems lost, but then they rally and fight back. The things that really get me include injustice—when the main character is framed or falsely accused, and especially if the system is corrupt, so he has nowhere to turn for help—or betrayal—when the people the hero should be able to count on turn on him. Anything that feels unfair will get to me. Physical jeopardy may bother me, but it’s the emotional jeopardy I find hardest to deal with.

But it got even worse in the past year because there was so much stress in real life that fictional stress was more than I could take. I watched a lot of documentaries because there’s not a lot of suspense there if you know the subject, and it’s less immediate. I rewatched and reread a lot of things because I’d already know a book was “safe,” and knowing how it came out made it easier to get through the somewhat suspenseful parts that are even in “safe” things (since you don’t get fiction without some conflict). I catch myself getting distracted when things I’m watching get intense. That’s when I check e-mail, Twitter, or the movie’s IMDB page.

Being conflict-averse makes writing a bit of a challenge. While I’m sure there are other readers like me who might be okay with low-stress reads, generally the books that stick in readers’ minds are those that make them feel something. There needs to be some intensity. I had to rewrite Case of the Curious Crystals a few times because I was in the middle of that book when the pandemic hit and I guess I just shut down. The first draft read like a user manual. I went back in and added emotions. Then I realized that nothing was at stake, so that took another rewrite.

I caught myself doing the same thing this week with the book I’m currently working on. There’s something that one character has been worried about the other character learning about him. He’s held back on telling her, hoping he can ease into it gently, and he’s not sure how she’ll respond. His hand gets forced, and he has to reveal this information in order to save them. And the way I wrote it going, she’s curious and asks questions, but she’s generally pretty cool about it. In the middle of the night last night it struck me that this was probably pretty anticlimactic. I don’t think I want it to be a case of him worrying too much and it working out fine. Eventually it will work out okay, but there needs to be a bit more friction at first. So, I’m going to remind myself that I know how it works out, so it’s okay for there to be some tension now, and I’ll rewrite it to make it more intense.

It probably won’t be gut-wrenching and won’t leave readers sobbing. I don’t write that kind of book. But I do want readers to worry enough about whether it might work out that they’re compelled to keep turning pages, and I want them to feel a bit bad for the characters.

Life

Day by Day

I guess you could say that one of my hobbies is productivity. I like studying different theories about productivity and trying techniques. Not that it all makes a difference or sticks, but I try to keep doing the things that work. My latest discovery kind of came by accident, but I think it’s making a difference.

It started with Duolingo. Nearly a year ago, I decided that one of my lockdown projects would be to learn some Norwegian to prepare for that bucket list trip I may get to take someday. They’re sneaky with how they set that program up because they praise and reward you for keeping a streak going and make it sound like breaking that streak would be the worst thing that could happen to you. That means I’ve done some work on Norwegian every day for almost a year. Even during the power failures, when I briefly got power one of my priorities was quickly doing a lesson to keep my streak going. And now I feel like I’ve made a lot of progress from doing a little bit every day. I’m not fluent by any means, but I follow the Norwegian tourist board on Twitter, and when they share articles that are in Norwegian I’ve been able to get the gist of the excerpts that show up in the tweet. I don’t think I could have a conversation, but I’d be able to figure out signs and restaurant menus.

Then there was yoga. I started the year with a 30-day program online through Yoga with Adriene. Then I found that she puts out a calendar each month, putting together a daily practice made up of videos she’s already done. That has done a lot to keep me going every day. First, I wanted to keep up with the 30-day program. Then it became easy to find a workout because I don’t have to choose something. I just do whatever comes up for that day (though I have changed the order when there’s a really long one on a busy day and a shorter one on another day). I’ve kept up with the daily yoga almost every day this year, though I did miss some days during the deep freeze because I didn’t want to have the TV on and running a video while the power was going off and on (I get YouTube on my DVR/tuner box) and I didn’t want to get out from under my pile of blankets, since the house never really got warm during that time. But otherwise, there’s been yoga every day, and I can really feel a difference. I’m so much stronger and more flexible. When I’ve taken some kind of exercise class, it’s been once a week, and that doesn’t have the impact that daily work has.

I already knew that I make so much more progress writing when I try to do it every day (though I do give myself weekends off). I’m trying to get a “streak” going of having written at least a little every weekday. The fun thing is, if I start to get my little bit to check it off for the day, I almost always end up doing a lot more.

Last week, I decided that I really needed to make progress on my lifelong dream of learning to play piano, so I started doing at least a little bit every day. Even in a week, I think it’s working. I’ve hit the song in the lesson book where I always stall out and give up because it ties my fingers in knots and completely baffles my brain (trying to read both clefs at a time with multiple notes at a time), but I’m going to keep at it and see if I get past this point.

And now I’m looking at marketing. I struggle with it because I hate to do it, though it’s necessary. I’d rather just hide in my cave and write books, but to make a living at it, I need people to discover and read these books. So if I do one marketing or business task a day, every day, will I see a difference? Only having to do one thing doesn’t feel as overwhelming as having a whole plan to carry out. And maybe doing it every day will make me feel more comfortable with it. I’ve set up a calendar with a task of the day so I don’t have to make decisions in the moment. Now we’ll see if it has any impact.

writing

Branching Off

In my reworking of an old story idea, I’ve reached the point where this version diverges greatly from the way I wrote it twenty years ago. Up to now, I’ve mostly added backstory and context, and the scenes themselves have played out differently, but the key events have been more or less the same.

Now, though, is where the differences really kick in, when the major events will be different, as will the settings, and it’s kind of strange. I feel like I’m in one of those stories where the characters go back in time, alter the timeline, and return to a changed world where they see the consequences of the changes they made. Or maybe a story in which the characters are subtly aware of the way things could have been if they’d made a different choice. I can still see the ghost of the original version. In a way, it’s more clear than the new one because that’s the movie I’ve had in my head for decades. I’ve actually written it. This new one is still very new, not entirely written, and the mental movie is just starting to take shape, so it’s a lot less concrete to me. It’s really weird to write something when the other version is still so vivid.

I imagine as I get further and further from the original story, this will bother me less because it’ll be so different from the original and this version will have become more solid. Right now, though, I seem to be flipping back and forth in the mental images in my head, so it’s slow going as I have to make an effort to go in a different direction, even though the new direction is so much better. It’s hard to let go of the old way.

I think there’s a metaphor about life and growth in there somewhere.

 

movies

Superhero Woes

My current viewing project is to try to get a little grounding in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m not a huge fan of superhero movies. I’m intrigued by some of the characters. I like the concept of juggling identities, of dealing with having special abilities and wrestling with moral dilemmas. It’s just that the movies tend to be fairly boring to me because they often dispense with that stuff and end up just being about people running around and hitting each other.

For instance, I love the character of Captain America. I love the concept, and I particularly love the reasons they chose this 90-pound weakling to turn into a supersoldier, that he already had the heart. He just needed a body that could keep up with his heart. My pastor even used this story as a sermon illustration — the scene in which they prove which guy should be chosen for the program by throwing a grenade. Steve throws himself on it to protect everyone else, while the big, strong guy that one person wanted for the program runs and hides. But I totally tune out during the climactic fight scene. It’s just a bunch of hitting.

Last weekend, I started a project of trying to watch the critical movies for the overall storyline, plus the ones I find interesting, going in internal chronological order (in order in the story world, not in release order). Since I’d already seen Captain America, I watched Captain Marvel, and I really liked it. For once, I didn’t zone out during the action sequence because it all came out of character. It was about her reclaiming her power, both literally and metaphorically, and the metaphor part was what made it work because that part was something a lot of people in the audience (especially women) could relate to. Watching that movie made me realize the problem with Captain America’s action sequence. He didn’t really have anything he needed to learn. He didn’t have to grow. He was already there. We already knew he was capable of sacrificing himself for others. I’ve griped about how I wished he could have stayed in the WWII setting longer, but now I think I get why they moved him ahead. For him to have good conflict, he needs something to bounce off, so he needs the other characters and he needs a world where he doesn’t really fit, a situation where he has to choose between gray areas of good rather than clear good vs. evil. I guess when I get to more movies with him I’ll find out if that’s where they’re going with it.

Then I watched the first Iron Man, and I didn’t like that one as much, mostly because I’m pretty much done with the genius jerk character type. That does give plenty of room for a character arc since he has to grow a lot, but in this case, his growth came fairly early in the story, and just because what he’d been doing actually affected him. It’s like the guy who only takes women’s rights seriously once he has a daughter and sees what she has to deal with.

I think the first Avengers movie is up next for me. I’ve already watched the first Thor (again, I liked the characters, got bored during the action sequences) and that’s the next critical one. I’m skipping the second Iron Man and Hulk for now. They’re not on the “critical” list, and I don’t care all that much about them.

My issue with superhero stuff is fairly recent. I don’t know if it’s me or if it’s because of what happened when filmmakers had the use of CGI to make the big fight scenes really big, but I used to run home from the bus stop after school so I could catch the syndicated reruns of the old Batman TV series. I watched the Hulk, Spider-Man, and Wonder Woman TV series in the 70s and the Saturday-morning Shazaam/Isis hour. I saw the big-screen Superman movies, the Batman movies from the late 80s/90s and the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies. But around the time they started the MCU stuff, I just completely lost interest in superhero stuff, possibly because I felt overloaded by it. There was just so much all of a sudden, between the Marvel and DC stuff, and it seemed like there wasn’t a lot of anything else, so I just resisted it all. It does look like there’s some good stuff in there, so now that I have Disney+ I’m giving it a shot.

Anyway, it looks like I’ve got enough to keep me busy until more new Star Wars stuff shows up.

writing, fantasy

Names that Fit

I’ve discovered another issue with writing “secondary world” fantasy that’s becoming a challenge, and it’s even more of a challenge when reworking a story I came up with when I was about 21, and that’s naming both characters and places.

About the only name I picked then that’s sticking is the name for one of the main characters. The name of the other main character was the most obvious generic fantasy name, so I’d already changed it in the previous iteration of this book. Now as I revisit this story and do more specific worldbuilding, I’m finding that the names I’ve been using no longer fit and I need a lot of new names, but I haven’t found anything I like yet. There are a lot of placeholders because it’s silly to stop a story dead in its tracks to go look for names.

It’s a lot easier to come up with names in stories that are set more or less in our world. In a fantasy world, the names need to sound like they belong in a different world. It would be a bit disappointing to read a fantasy story about George and Ralph. You can sometimes do hearty, salt-of-the-earth type names like Sam that still fit in a quasi-medieval setting. But then you also need to have some kind of internal consistency, with names that sound like they come from a similar culture or language for the people who come from the same place. In a place where different cultures mix, you can have a mix of names, but names generally mean something.

If you’re Tolkien, you invent a language, then come up with names that mean something in that language. If you’re not that hardcore, you pick names from the culture you’re roughly basing your culture on, and then tinker with them a bit to make them more “fantasy.” Or you can just find names that sound “fantasy” to you and throw them together. That tends to be Celtic or Norse names in most American-written fantasy, and that’s a lot of what I seem to have done in my earlier pass at this story. But I find myself cringing at some of the names I used before, so I want different names.

I did do a name brainstorming session and assigned names to things, but decided that I didn’t like them. When I can’t remember what name goes with which person or place, that’s a sign they don’t fit. I’m hoping that as I write and get a better sense of the world and its people, I’ll have a better idea of names that fit and I can fill those in during the next draft.

Meanwhile, I’ve reached the part that used to be the beginning of this book, some scenes I’ve written so many times that I could probably write them out from memory, but now they’ve changed drastically based on different backstories and story concepts, so I have the new version overlapping the old version in my head, and I’m seeing things very differently than I did when I was in my early 20s. In a sense, I’m mourning the loss of the old version because there was a lot I liked about it — obviously, if this story has haunted me all this time — but then I’m also seeing it come to much more vivid life in a way that makes a lot more sense. The new version will eventually take over the old one in my head, but I’ll still remember that first one fondly because it’s been with me so long.

writing, fantasy

Making New Worlds

Since the book I’m currently working on started from a very old idea, I’ve been having to flesh out what was actually an underdeveloped world, and trying to figure out what that world looks like has made me really think about worldbuilding.

Since the only world we know is the one we live in, we naturally tend to base our imaginary worlds on aspects of our world. How close the imaginary world is to our world depends on the author. Even a really different world is probably going to be at least partially based on or inspired by something in our world.

Traditional “secondary world” fantasy (in other words, an imaginary world rather than an alternate history of our world) is generally set in a quasi-medieval European society. I’m not sure where that convention got started. Maybe it comes from fairy tales, which are always in the “long ago.” Or maybe Arthurian legends had something to do with it, especially during the Gothic Revival trend of the Victorian era, with the idealized depiction of the Middle Ages that was popular in art of that time. There was the sense that this was a better, purer time, with chivalry, and all that.

The Lord of the Rings, which is sometimes considered the start of the modern fantasy genre, is actually all over the map, timewise. The hobbits are essentially Edwardian English country gentry. They have that idealized pastoral life and even that attire. That waistcoat and suit coat look wasn’t just an invention of the movies. There are references in the books to waistcoats and buttons — things you wouldn’t have found in a medieval setting. But then the human and elf societies come across as closer to fairy tale medieval.

Anyway, medieval-ish Europe has been the basic traditional fantasy setting, though the genre is now expanding a lot, incorporating elements from other cultures and time periods. How closely these fantasy settings adhere to any actual history or culture is up to the author. Purists may try to stick as closely as possible to the clothing, culture, and technology of the specific place and time they’re basing their world on. You’re not going to find potatoes — something brought back from the New World — in this kind of world if that world is based on Europe before the 1600s. These authors may be meticulous about accurately representing the cultures they’re using as the basis for their worlds, even if it’s not actually presented as that culture. Sometimes it’s really obvious which culture an author is basing their world on, even if the author isn’t being that meticulous. I’ve read several secondary world fantasies that involve a fierce, warlike culture of mostly redhaired people who wear plaid, talk like “I dinna ken, ye wee lassie,” and probably live on the northern border. Or as I call it, Not!Scotland. There are a lot of Not!Lands in fantasy. It may not be overt, but you can figure out what the various cultures are supposed to be.

Others may figure that if it’s another world, anything goes. They can pick the clothing they like, change it up, throw in different kinds of technology that’s advanced at different rates, mix and match cultures, and move things around to create something fairly new. There may be whiffs of Not!Lands that give you a hint of what might have been the inspiration, but there’s probably a lot that doesn’t come from those places.

The really tricky thing for writers is that a lot of readers assume that your cultures are Not!Lands, whether or not they are, and they’ll expect you to have represented the way that land is in our world accurately in your imaginary world. Writers get angry e-mails from readers about what they got wrong in their totally imaginary world. Frequently, they’ve guessed wrong about what the writer based that culture on. I will confess that it does kind of throw me out of a story when potatoes show up in a quasi-medieval European fantasy world, and I have to remind myself that this is another world. Potatoes may grow naturally on that continent. The potato-growing continent might be a lot closer. The Not!Vikings might have made it farther south in their New World and brought potatoes back to their continent a lot sooner.

I’m having to deal with all of this in writing now because I’m doing my first true secondary world (unless you count the portal world of Spindled). Last year, I spent a lot of time on worldbuilding to create a setting for a series of books I’m still developing, and I think I went a bit overboard in trying to make it fit rigidly in the time period I chose to base it on. I’d picked a period when I liked the women’s clothing and some aspects of the men’s clothing, but there were also things I didn’t want to use about men’s styles in that era, and I had to remind myself that I was making it all up. It’s my world. I can make it go however I want to.

The book I’m working on now keeps trying to turn into a western. It’s that kind of terrain in part of the story, and there’s a small town that the loner hero arrives in. My mental imagery of how they’re dressed is closer to western than medieval, and yet there’s a lot of medieval in the structure of the society. I was struggling with the back and forth, then realized I didn’t have to pick one or the other. This doesn’t have to be an alternate history of the Old West in the United States. It can be a European quasi-medieval world with a western flavor. Heavy boots and twill trousers are a lot more practical in that setting than doublet and hose. The guy dressed kind of like a cowboy can have a sword belt instead of a gun belt. I’m not sure how much of this will actually make it into the book. It’s mostly an aesthetic, my mental images, and I don’t know if the way I describe it will give the same mental image to readers, but I think having this in mind might make my world a little different from the generic quasi-medieval European fantasy world. The important thing is that there be an internal consistency to the world that makes sense.