Archive for writing


A Break Before Revision

I’ve been battling a book that I thought I had all planned out. There are scenes I’ve been imagining for ages, even before I decided I was going to use this plot for this series. But it’s been a bit of a struggle because there was something about it that just wasn’t working. I even got to a point where I couldn’t go forward because I had no idea what should happen next, so I tried something I’ve never done before and wrote scenes out of order. If there was a scene from later in the book that I thought I could write, I wrote it even if I didn’t know how I was going to get there. I wrote the “interview” scenes in which they talk to the suspects without knowing which order they were going to go in.

And the more I wrote, the more aware I became that there was a fundamental problem with the way I was handling this story, but I couldn’t think of how to solve it.

Monday night, I figured out exactly what that problem was and how to solve it — when I was less than 7,000 words away from my target word count (though a lot of those words aren’t going to end up in the book). It’s going to require some rewriting and restructuring, but the moment I changed that idea, the story fell together in my head. I tried writing one of the pivotal scenes in the way it would go with this new structure, and it was perfect. So, that’s what I’ll do.

The original plan was to finish the first draft this week, then take the long holiday weekend as a vacation of sorts, then after the holiday do the first round of revisions. With the revision I have in mind, there’s no point in making myself write to the end when the beginning is going to change, and I think a break before I start rewriting would be a good idea. So, I’m taking the rest of the week off as a bit of a holiday, and I’ll get back to work on Monday. The nice thing about working for yourself is that you get to decide when to take holidays. I don’t really like Monday holidays because they throw off my whole week. I’d rather start the weekend early, so that’s what I’m doing.

I don’t have big plans. I want to do some housework, sleep, read, and generally relax. I’ve been pushing through for the last month or so, telling myself I’d get a break after this draft, and I need that break. The next round of the book should be a lot easier. I hope!


Review and Revision

I got to the halfway point of the work in progress on Friday, so I figured it would be a good idea to go back over that part over the weekend, since it’s easier to rewrite half a book if something’s gone wrong than it is to rewrite a whole book. I was okay with the parts I read over the weekend. Then Monday morning I realized I’d made a big goof.

I’d made the villain do something that was convenient for my plot and nice and dramatic but that made no sense, that was counterproductive to the villain’s goals, and that was out of character for the villain. I’ve spent the last couple of days rewriting to fix it, and I think that’s actually going to make things easier going forward. The tricky part has been keeping the things I like in the new context.

I go back and forth on whether to plow through a book then do rewrites after I’ve written the whole book or to revise as I go. I generally learn things near the end that change the beginning, so there’s no point in rewriting the beginning until I know the end. On the other hand, it’s easier to rewrite a chapter or two than to have to fix a whole book. I’ve compromised by doing chunks. I don’t try to revise as I go, but I’ll go back and revise halfway through, or perhaps a quarter through a longer book. If I get stuck and feel like the book’s not going well, I’ll stop wherever I am and review things. But this book is a good case study for taking a look every so often even when I feel like it’s going well because it hadn’t occurred to me that the villain did the murder the wrong way until I re-read it. And even then, I didn’t realize it until I was writing out what the villain and the other characters were doing at the same time to make sure it was all lining up, and then I had that “wait a second, why would he do it that way?” moment.

I initially got into the “push through the whole book” habit because when I first started writing, I tended to write the first couple of chapters over and over but never finished a book. I had to make myself plow through the whole thing without revising in order to finish a book. By now, I figure I know I can finish a book, so editing along the way is okay. I still have a moment of guilt when I go back, though.

I think I’ve got it fixed now, but I do have to consider how it affects the rest of the plot going forward. And now I need to write the second half of the book (well, a little less, since I’m now closer to the 2/3 point). I’ve told myself that if I have a draft finished before Labor Day weekend, I get to take a long holiday weekend to rest, relax, and reboot, so I’m motivated to get it done.


Defending the Hero’s Journey

One other thing that came out of the panel on structure last weekend was a big hate for the Hero’s Journey format. I feel like I need to speak up to defend it because it’s made a huge difference in my writing. It was what taught me how to plot.

I’ve always been good at coming up with characters and situations that would lend themselves to stories. I sometimes even came up with the inciting incidents, the things that lurched the characters into the situations that would make for stories. I wrote a lot of first chapters of novels, but I couldn’t seem to get past that point. After I’d launched the story, I wasn’t sure what would happen next, what the story would actually be about.

Somehow, I managed to write and sell some books in spite of this. They were category romances, which have their own fairly rigid structure. I knew the beats I needed to hit, and I managed to write stories that hit them well enough to have them published, but I still didn’t know how to plot a book. I was trying to learn. I read a lot of how-to-write books about plotting. I tried making outlines. But it just didn’t click for me. It became more dire when the category line I was writing for folded and my editor suggested I expand the book I was working on into a single-title book, which would require me to double the length and actually have a plot.

Fortunately, around that time, someone spoke to my writing group about the Hero’s Journey, using the book written about it for writers, The Writer’s Journey, and the lightbulb went off. Everything clicked into place. The heavens opened and the angels sang. I finally understood how to plot a book.

The thing is, this structure isn’t drastically different from any other in Western storytelling (non-European-based cultures have their own story structures). They’re all just different language for describing the same thing, and this was a language that spoke to me. It really boils down to a character in a comfort zone (but not living up to their full potential), getting called to leave their comfort zone, learning things along the way, being tested on this and not fully succeeding because there’s something they’re not ready to let go of, then regrouping and trying again, and passing the final test because they can finally let go and undergo a symbolic death and resurrection.

I think a lot of the criticism comes because Hollywood glommed onto this so hard following the success of Star Wars, since George Lucas cited the influence of Joseph Campbell and his Hero with a Thousand Faces. That made this a very rigid structure that film studios follow slavishly, which can result in cookie-cutter movies. One of my issues with all those Marvel movies was that with most of them, I could predict each major event based on the Hero’s Journey by watching the clock. But if you’re looser with following the structure and don’t take it so literally, I think it’s a more useful tool. Another criticism I’ve heard is that it’s male-oriented and about separating from society, and that is what Campbell’s analysis is about, but the first book I applied it to was a small-town romance about fitting in to a community, so it doesn’t have to be about solo journeys and separations. If you look at the Jungian work that Campbell based his analysis on (yes, I’m a nerd), all the journey stuff is metaphorical, anyway, and is a representation of an interior journey. You can use the Hero’s Journey for plotting a story about someone who never goes anywhere, whose journey is strictly internal.

These days, I think I’ve internalized enough about plotting that I may not consciously use this structure to plot, and it is only one of the tools I use. It’s a good way to test a story idea to find if you’ve got enough material for a story in that idea. I use it for the big-picture plotting before I dig deeper, and I layer it with other things. Once I had that plotting epiphany because of the Hero’s Journey, all the other plot stuff I’d read made a lot more sense to me.

So, use it or don’t use it. Just find what speaks to you, what makes sense for your brain, but don’t be rigid about following anything. Unless you’re working in Hollywood, where they have their own issues, you can do whatever works for your story. If people notice your structure, you’re probably doing it wrong. The structure should exist to provide a framework for the story, with the focus on the story.


Fluff, Conflict, and Stakes

Last weekend was the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s Nebula Awards Conference, and one of the panels really got me started thinking. It was about story structure and looking beyond the three-act structure that’s fairly standard in modern Western storytelling, whether it’s film or novels. As part of the discussion, one of the panelists mentioned reading a lot of fan fiction during the past year because regular fiction is just too stressful. In fan fiction, you can find stories that are pure fluff, just the characters doing things like hanging out in a coffee shop and talking, with no plot or conflict. Other panelists agreed with the need for fluff, and this was discussed further in an online chat that followed the panel. I’ve seen that sort of thing mentioned a lot lately, that “fluff” is really popular among fan fiction readers, and yet we keep hearing from editors and agents that stories need more conflict and tension. I certainly would enjoy just spending time with characters I like.

But then I started thinking about it some more, and I wonder how well fluff would work outside the fan fiction realm. Would you be interested in reading about a bunch of unknown superheroes hanging around in a coffee shop and talking about their lives, or is that only interesting if it’s the Avengers—characters you already know and care about? I’m sure you could write a fun story about random superheroes in a coffee shop, but it would probably be about their work lives, which would bring in the conflict and tension. You’d have to establish something about their superhero lives for their leisure hours to have any real meaning. On the other hand, you could have Steve and Natasha hanging out in a coffee shop, with him talking about his cute new neighbor and her trying to give him tips for dating in the 21st century, and if you’re a fan of the franchise you’d already know that he’s Captain America and she’s Black Widow, and this is a scene that might have taken place between the first Avenger’s movie and Captain America: Winter Soldier. You enjoy seeing them in their free time because you’ve seen them saving the world. The same sort of thing between someone like Super Soldier and Ninja Lady, but in their civilian personas, wouldn’t have the same interest since we don’t know what their superhero lives are about, so their story would have to be about them being superheroes, or why bother making them superheroes? I’m not sure you could do pure fluff outside an existing franchise with familiar characters.

That realization sparked two big thoughts. One is that maybe it’s not fluff I’m looking for, but rather things with less dire stakes. I don’t particularly want to read about characters I don’t already care about hanging around in a coffee shop and talking, with nothing else happening. I just want to read about adventures where the fate of the world isn’t at stake. There’s got to be a happy medium between the invincible villain whose plan is to destroy half the beings in the entire universe and the coffee shop. I think the vast majority of fantasy novels I’ve read involve some ultra-powerful villain who’s going to bring about the end of the world as the heroes know it, so all will be lost if the heroes don’t stop him, and they have to fight off swarms of evil minions along the way.

One of my favorite fantasy stories, in both book and movie version, is Stardust, where the stakes are pretty much just about whether the hero is going to figure out who his true love is before he makes a big mistake that will limit his life. There is the problem of the witch who wants the star’s heart, but they only really have one encounter with her before the final confrontation (in the movie; in the book they don’t even have that final confrontation), but they’re not focusing much attention on having to fight her. Then there’s the issue of the prince trying to get the gem that will make him king, which the star has, but our hero doesn’t even know or care about this and isn’t actively in opposition. Things will probably not be super for the kingdom if this guy gets the throne, but he doesn’t seem like he’ll be any worse than any of the previous kings. The stakes are pretty much that the hero is going to ruin his life if he doesn’t figure things out, and yet I find the story utterly captivating.

I recently read a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story (that may be its own post later), and the only thing at stake there is that the beast will be stuck as a beast unless he can break the curse. The kingdom isn’t going to be sunk into an abyss, from which demons will come pouring out, if he fails. He’ll just be stuck as a beast. No one else will know, care, or be affected. The Beauty doesn’t know that he can be saved, so even she will merely have the status quo continue. But I still found it engaging. In fact, I may care more about whether the Beast will be redeemed or whether Tristan will get his act together than I care that an imaginary world will be taken over by orcs. It’s like the saying that one death is a tragedy while many deaths are a statistic, I guess. When it’s too big to comprehend, I just shut down and don’t get emotionally involved.

I think that’s the kind of thing I’d like more of, stories where the stakes are more personal than epic, where it’s not going to be great for the characters if they fail, but the fate of the entire world isn’t at stake. It does take really strong characters and solid writing to pull that off. Making readers care and turn pages is easy when the fate of the world is at stake. Making them worry just as much that a character will have an unfulfilling life if he fails is trickier to execute.

The other thing that occurred to me from this discussion was that there’s room for authors to write these fluff stories within their own franchises. The main books may have all the big conflict, but it might be possible to write those “coffee shop” scenes for fans of the franchises. I understand that some authors do this kind of thing on Patreon. I did the one story for the Enchanted, Inc. universe that you can get if you subscribe to my newsletter, but otherwise my shorter pieces have been very plotty—not “end of the world if we fail” plotty, but still with action and conflict. Now I’m pondering if I could write the sort of fluff pieces that are popular in fan fiction for my own work and have any kind of market for them, whether selling them as individual works or doing some kind of subscription thing. It might be fun to write missing scenes for my own books, the things editors make me cut out to improve pacing but that readers might enjoy.


Fitting in Niches

Because I really need to sell more books, I’ve been reading a lot about the business of publishing. And it seems that I’ve been doing one thing wrong if I want to make money. I’m apparently writing the wrong books.

My general way of deciding what books to write has started with the ideas I have, and that usually comes from me thinking of a kind of book I really want to read, trying to find it, not being able to find it, and then writing it myself. From a creative standpoint, that’s not a bad method. It means you love what you write, and it may mean you’re filling an unserved niche. I see people giving the advice to write the book you want to read but can’t find all the time.

From a sales and marketing standpoint, it doesn’t work so well. If you’re going the traditional publishing route, you run up against the problem of “comps” or comparable titles. When a publisher is trying to decide whether or not they want to publish a book, they want to get an idea of how well it might sell, and to do that, they look at other books that are similar. If there are no similar books, they can’t get the numbers to put in their spreadsheet. That’s when you get the “I love this but wouldn’t know how to market it” rejections. They have to really, really feel strongly about a book and have some other reason to think it might be successful to go for a book they can’t find comps for.

In independent publishing, all the advice is to look at the categories and make sure your book fits well within a category that sells well but that isn’t so crowded that your book will be lost. You try to find as narrow a category as possible, then hit all the expected tropes for that category and make sure that your cover makes it really obvious that it belongs in that category. There’s software to help you analyze the categories that tells you about how many books you need to sell a day to make the top ten of your category.

When you’re writing the book you want to read and can’t find, that gets difficult because your book doesn’t fit well in any one category, it doesn’t have the popular tropes readers are looking for, and the expected style of cover in that category doesn’t fit your book.

With that fantasy book I’ve been working on, the one with the journey that leads to romance, you’d think that would fit obviously into a category, but it doesn’t. The “fantasy—romantic” category isn’t really that thing at all. If I were to describe what’s there, I’d lure a lot of spambots (let’s just say there are a lot of covers with bare, sculpted male torsos). I kind of wish there were a separate category for books that aren’t quite as focused on the romance and that aren’t so steamy. I wouldn’t really consider it epic fantasy. It’s not based on fairy tales. It doesn’t have magical creatures (maybe I should throw in a dragon so I can go with that category). It’s got sorcery but no swords, so isn’t sword and sorcery. I’m not sure how they define “historical” fantasy. It’s secondary world and not based on any particular culture, period, or place in our world, though it does deal with the history of that world.

The problem for me is that I don’t seem to have story ideas in the obvious, strong categories. My ideas almost always come from the place of “I want to read this and I can’t find it.” I know there are a lot of other readers like me out there who want those books, too. The trick is finding them and making sure they can find my books. That’s where I have to rely on my readers telling other readers about them. That’s the best way for like-minded people to be able to find the books they want.

I do think that the Kindle Unlimited program skews the perception of the trends and tropes, though. Those are readers who are paying a set price per month for all the books they want to read, and I think when you’re not paying for each book individually but can read all you want of the sort of thing you like, you choose books differently. If you remove the KU books from the bestseller list, the remaining books look very different. The problem is that the KU books tend to fill the Amazon bestseller lists, so everything else gets buried. Maybe it looks different on other retailers, but their interfaces aren’t quite as easy to scroll through. This is part of why I keep my books on wide release instead of in KU. I don’t think I fit the niches that do well in KU, and I’d lose the readers who don’t buy books through Amazon.


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.


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.


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.


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.