Writers Bloc series
Featured columnist: Victoria Strauss
"The Impatient Writer's Guide to Worldbuilding"
by Victoria Strauss
I'm an impatient writer. I don't enjoy prep work, especially the kind of detailed preparation needed to create a believable imaginary world.
When I first started writing, my solution was to wing it. I'd take an idea and plunge right in, letting the story take me where it would and allowing the world to develop spontaneously.
The problem was that I constantly wrote myself into corners. I'd get to a point where I'd realize that what I wanted to happen couldn't happen, because of some social custom or rule of magic I'd set up earlier.
Over the years, I've worked out an approach that's a compromise between my natural hastiness and the need for consistency in the development of an imaginary reality:
KEEP IT SIMPLE
Before I do anything else, I make sure that I have a firm grasp of my world's core principles. But the details -- the shape and nature of the actual places my plot takes me -- aren't developed until I get to them in the course of writing.
The core principles for my novel "The Arm of the Stone":
1. A parallel world where technology is regarded as deadly to magic.
2. A medieval lifestyle artificially maintained by limitations on technological practice.
3. A repressive ruling group driven by a fanatical anti-tech ideology.
ACCEPT UNEXPECTED GIFTS
The initial idea for "The Arm of the Stone" came to me via a friend's dream.
In the dream, my friend traveled to a place where magic was possible only because technology was rigorously restricted.
I was intrigued by the question of what sort of world that would be. Would the restriction be based on a natural law (i.e., magic and technology are intrinsically incompatible), or would it be based on an ideology (i.e., people only think magic and tech are told magic and tech are incompatible, so that’s what they believe to be true).
Just thinking about this one question brought out several ideas and thoughts about this world:
- What would the lifestyle be?
- What mechanisms of enforcement would be involved?
- How can you be violently opposed to something unless you've actually seen it in action, or think you have?
Ultimately, I decided to make the incompatibility between magic and technology a belief, rather than a law of nature -- firstly, because belief systems are a fascination of mine; secondly, because I didn't feel I could come up with a reasonable explanation for such a law, and I dislike books where situations exist
So, the people of my world believe that technology kills magic, and they believe it as if it were a natural law. Whether it is or isn't is a crucial theme I explore on "The Arm of the Stone" and its sequel, "The Garden of the Stone."
FOLLOW THE NATURAL PLOT PATH
Next came the question of why such a belief should arise. There had to be some past experience of rampant technology, an evil memory that had become an essential part of the belief system.
I came up with several possibilities: a high-tech society that had destroyed itself and been replaced by a magical one, a high-tech society that repressed magic and then was overthrown by it, and the option I chose, that my imaginary world had splintered off from our own "real" world, when developing technology began to crowd out the old magical and mystical ways.
It seemed to me that the lifestyle of my world would be more or less medieval -- not just because anti-tech ideology would make it a pre-machine culture, but because the ideologues, in their fervor, would cripple the practice of technology beyond what was really necessary.
I had the ideology, then, and the lifestyle.
But ideologies don't exist independent of groups. I needed an organization that could embody the anti-tech belief system -- and also enforce it.
REAL LIFE IN FICTION
I use real-world models whenever possible; I think an imaginary world gains depth not just by being strange and different, but also by being
Because I wanted my anti-tech ideology to have a strong religious flavor, I decided to model my organization after the medieval Christian church.
Thus, the Order of Guardians was born. It has a central seat of power, like the Vatican. Its members receive training and take vows, as in a religious order. It's ruled by a single spiritual leader, like the Pope.
It governs by means of Dioceses, controlled by the equivalent of Archbishops, and parishes, administered by the equivalent of priests. It has Scriptures, in the form of the Books of Limits, which set forth the precise means by which technology is to be restricted.
Like the medieval church, it's an entrenched bureaucracy concerned as much with its own preservation as with its spiritual mission. Also like the medieval church, it hoards wealth: all wealth, including magic.
Last but definitely not least, it has an Inquisition: the Arm of the Stone.
BREAK IT DOWN
With the plot in place, I faced the task of unfolding my core concepts into the detail required by the story: the nuts and bolts of worldbuilding.
I broke the writing down into story chapters.
In each section of the book, I worked on portraying a different aspect of the Guardians' rule: in the first section, the Guardians' methods of educating and punishing the populace; in the second, the Guardians' internal training systems; in the third, the special training required by the Arm of the Stone; in the fourth, the Guardians' administrative bureaucracy; in the fifth, the Guardians' ways of punishing their own.
These, then, were my core premises for “The Arm of the Stone.” I thought them out over a period of about six months, while I was finishing up a previous project.
Most of my books begin with a single, long plot synopsis, which helps me flesh out story and characters; it also tells me where I need to
concentrate my worldbuilding research.
For my most recent book, "The Burning Land," a great deal of my effort was focused on creating the Way of Ârata, the religion that lies at the core of the story, along with its legends, its scriptures, and its traditions and institutions.
My goal was a monotheistic religion that did not substantially resemble the Judaeo-Christian tradition.
Because I wanted to come up with something that had no real-world analogue, my research consisted of general reading about a wide variety of religious traditions, which I hoped would give me inspiration in two areas.
First, I needed to work out the basic structural elements of the Way of Ârata. Second, I looked for interesting practices and traditions that I
could borrow or adapt.
For instance, the perpetually-reincarnated Brethren are borrowed from Tibetan Buddhism. Âratist monastic practice is very (very) loosely based on Buddhist practice.
While there are varieties of fantasy that arise whole and entire from the author's imagination (Mervyn Peake's "Gormenghast" books come to mind), most have at least something to do with the real world, or use real-world models as the basis for their inventions.
If you want to write a fantasy with an Asian flavor, your imaginary world is going to have more depth if you do some research into Asian cultures.
If there are battle scenes in your book, read up on weaponry and military strategy. If one of your characters is a metalsmith, read up on
metalworking techniques if you want her to be credible.
Research for "The Burning Land" included reading up on the Australian outback, to give a realistic flavor to the vast desert from which the book takes its title; the Jordanian city of Petra, which was my model for the lost city of Refuge; some general reading on the Russian Revolution and Mao Zedong, to flesh out the Caryaxist rebellion and some investigation into herbal lore, since my heroine, Axane, is a healer.
I made rough maps of the terrain, buildings, cities, etc. that my characters would be encountering.
Nothing fancy, just enough to keep myself oriented so that I wouldn't describe something as being on the left side of a courtyard and then, in the next chapter, say it was on the right.
Also, there’s a lot of travel in the book; the distances traveled, as well as the timeframes involved, needed to be plausible.
TAKE A BREATHER
I decide on the actual shape of things only when it came time to write them.
Before beginning work on each section, I paused for three or four days to sketch out settings and customs and other necessary details.
While the core premises were formulated mainly in my head, I did the detail preparation on paper (I tried to think of myself as compiling a series of essays for an imaginary encyclopedia).
DON’T GO OVERBOARD
Another advantage of building a world in bits and pieces is that I don't come up with more detail than I actually need.
This is important, since I've found that if I go to the trouble of making something up, it's incredibly hard to stop myself from including it, even if it doesn't really serve the plot.
Notes in hand, I organize information into a form that I can use right away. Rather than making outlines or enumerating facts, I create little essays, as if I were writing entries for an encyclopedia.
Some, such as a series of episodes from church history, a discussion of Âratist religious practice, and an exploration of the magic of Shapers and Dreamers, were essential background information for the book. Some, such as the list of Âratist heresies, I did mostly for fun.
It’s easier for me to discipline myself to this kind of prep work in small periodic doses than in large do-it-all-at-once lumps. I like the freedom of not being locked in to a specific template from start to finish. It gives me a sense of discovering my world as I journey deeper into it, and allows room for inspiration.
Many of my best details are things I probably couldn't have envisioned at the start of the book, springing not just from my understanding of the basic principles of the reality I've created, but from the context of what I've already written.
Some fantasy writers do feel that it's important to work out every aspect of their invented worlds and cultures, whether or not they figure into the plot. But for me, this is clutter. You can write a novel set in Massachusetts even if you don't know much about Illinois.
One of the ways I guard against the impulse to overstuff is to develop in depth only those areas of my world that are required by my story.
For instance, the kingdom of Haruko is important because it's home to a large community of Arsacian expatriates driven out by the Caryaxist rebellion -- but none of the book's action actually takes place in Haruko, and so I didn't bother naming cities or deciding on geographical features.
NOW, YOU CAN WING IT
Because I’ve made sure I have a good grasp of the basic ground rules of my setting, I can easily invent more details when I need them.
This results in a fair bit of world building on the fly -- which, because it takes place during the actual process of writing, does slow me down, but still works better for me than spending a lot of initial time developing things I may not need.
It also preserves a certain amount of spontaneity within the context of all my careful planning, leaving room for flashes of inspiration.
WRITE A SEQUEL
Research and prep work for "The Burning Land" took perhaps three months, with several additional one or two week intervals where extra research was needed.
For the sequel (as yet untitled), I haven't had to do nearly so much preparation, because all the basic world building is done. But there are still things I need to research. So far I've read up on solution caves, messianic cults and military strategy. But most of the work was already done for me, since I have an established base to build on.
I still don't especially enjoy the research process, but I've made my peace with it, because there really are no shortcuts to doing things right.
But, for me, this method of working is the best compromise I've found between the demands of good writing and my own impatience.
The time spent in initial, broad-premise preparation gives me the consistency I need to produce a believable and fully-developed world, while the working out of specific details as I go allows me the flexibility I crave.
Best of all, it preserves the element of discovery that is, for me, one of the greatest joys of writing.
(c) 2004, Victoria Strauss. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Bio: Victoria Strauss is the author of "The Arm of the Stone," "The Garden of the Stone," and YA fantasy books “Worldstone” and "The Lady of Rhuddesmere."
Her new novel is "The Burning Land" (HarperCollins/Eos). She is currently at work on the sequel to "The Burning Land," as yet untitled.
Visit official site: Victoria Strauss
Preview the sequel to "The Burning Land," here.
Strauss created and maintains writer resource Writer Beware, a compendium of alerts about literary fraud. Strauss is a member of the Authors Guild, Novelists, Inc. and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America; she is a member of the SFWA’s Writing Scams Committee.
About: The Writers Bloc series is an ongoing column featuring practical advice for writers. Nope, not a support group. Not until someone busts out the tequila, anyway...
Read more books/writers content in the OCT/NOV issue of "Arte Six".