I write weird stuff.
In addition to writing nonfiction, I am a speculative fiction novelist. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, speculative fiction is the umbrella that fits over the genres of science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, supernatural, etc. I love it all, but my specialty is science fiction.
I was destined for this world of weirdness. I grew up in the sixties. One of my fondest memories is of sitting on my father’s lap, watching the original Star Trek series. For me, writing science fiction is like coming back home.
So what does this all have to do with the focus of this post?
Being a scifi writer means I create worlds . . . from scratch. I invent the science, determine the natural laws, populate them with strange creatures, and even stranger flora. Effective world building is foundational for the kind of books I write. It’s important in every novel, but it takes on added importance when the reader is dealing with a setting made up entirely from the author’s imagination.
For example, it’s not possible for me to mention my heroine is climbing through an abandoned spaceship hatch embedding in the talarium-coated rock face to get outdoors where the Laisa trees are in bloom and expect my readers to visualize what I’m describing.
I spend a lot of time creating my world and pulling it together in ways that don’t contradict.
For me, this is a labor of love.
As a matter of fact, I love it so much, that I now find myself doing it without thinking. Imagining worlds that don’t yet exist are an integral part of the daydreams that come upon me unaware.
I do have a system I use when I’m past the daydream stage and into the roll-up-my-sleeves-and-get-writing stage.
My World Building Checklist:
1. Believability: It doesn’t matter if my story takes place in small town USA or on board a spaceship. I must infuse the place with believability. For example, I can’t place my heroine in an aircar that flies hundreds of miles per hour and not provide her with a safety harness for her seat. As a speculative author, it’s imperative we make certain the science—and magic—of the place we’re creating makes sense.
2. Terminology: The world I build must have the flavor of the environment I’m trying to convey. It doesn’t matter if I’m in a different country or a unique time in history or created world, I still need “otherness” in the setting. That means made-up words, different plant and animal life, and even a different way of measuring time and distance.
I want to flavor my out-of-this-world setting, but I don’t want the reader to become overwhelmed. Have you ever spent more time looking up words in the glossary at the back of the book than you have reading the actual book? So if I add too much story world detail, it’s like making a pot of chili and throwing in a cup of hot sauce—it’s just not fun to swallow.
3. Flora, Fauna and Physical Locale: I remember reading a book—from a well-known author—that took place in Houston, TX. The opening scene had her perched high on a hill overlooking the city. Hills are not part of the Houston environment. I lived there, and the nearest hill is hours away and the city is not visible from it. As a speculative author, I don’t have to worry about real-life inhabitants fussing because I got the setting wrong. (At least I hope I don’t!) But I still have to make sure the topography makes sense. A big part of the imagery comes in description. I have to provide just enough of a snap-shot to anchor my reader without overwhelming them with pointless details. I also want to leave room for them to have fun filling out the scene themselves. Speculative audiences are an imaginative lot. Once they have a good grasp of where they are, they can fill in some of the details—and they enjoy doing that. It’s part of the whole reading-spec-fiction experience.
4. Dialect and Language: Obviously a novel that takes place on another planet or in another dimension doesn’t have English as the foundational language. But if we wrote the book in a created language it won’t be read. So how do we convey a touch of foreignness without leaving the reader grasping for a possible meanings?
· Sprinkle in some made-up words with plenty of context to make the meaning clear. For example: Even as the voice in the earpiece sounded, Josiah smiled at her. “Don’t worry, Bezek bellows like a bovine, but is gentle as a hesit.”
· Utilize a different sentence structure. For example, in a normal conversation we’d say: She turned her head slowly, afraid of the pain, but only felt a slight echo of the injury. In a spec fiction book I’d change it to: She slowly turned her head, afraid of the pain, but only felt a slight echo of the injury. It’s a small change, but that kind of misplaced modifier will give the story a hint of foreignness.
· Give them a different way to measure time and distance. As I mentioned before, using different terms for these things can add a great deal of depth—as long as we don’t overdo it. In Anne McCaffrey’s dragon novels she refers to a week as a sevenday. It’s different, but still recognizable to readers. But it’s important to strike a balance between new terms and readability.
5. Keep Your Setting Uncomfortable: Settings can be a great way to bring in or escalate conflict. We want to build a world we love, but we don’t want it to be a world where everything is just right. A true utopian setting—without undercurrents of nastiness—is boring. A perfect setting can suck the life out of your story faster than almost anything. Look for ways to make the world you’re building an obstacle. Give it a difficult climate, or a harsh landscape, or deadly flora and fauna.
World building may be something we love, but it still takes work. We have to be willing to go deep and wide to make our settings believable and vibrant. It’s up to us to plant the reader in a place that allows their imagination to roam free while keeping their attention firmly focused on story that’s unfolding.
How do you build your story worlds? What is your favorite unique world that you've read? Let us know in the comments if you'd like to be entered to win a copy of Alone (print or e-book)!
Find your voice, live your story…is the foundation of Edie Melson’s message, no matter if she’s writing for fiction readers, parents, military families, or writers. Her passion to help those who are struggling find the strength they need to triumph is reflected in the characters she creates and the insight she shares. As an author, blogger, and speaker she’s encouraged and challenged audiences across the country and around the world.
She married the love of her life 35+ years ago and together they’ve raised three sons. Besides writing, Edie can often be found hiking in the out-of-doors with her camera slung across her back and her husband at her side. Connect with Edie further on her website, through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
After her family is killed in the cleansing, Bethany’s purpose in life has changed. No longer will she be allowed to work to save her dying planet. As a slave, endurance is her goal as she marks each day as one moment closer to an eternity spent reunited with those she loved. But when her planet is invaded, everything changes. Now she must decide either to align herself with those from her planet who condemned her faith and killed her family, or with the warriors who have conquered her world. Ultimately her choice will mean life or death for more than just her planet’s ecosystem. She alone holds the key to a powerful secret, and the fate of the entire galaxy depends on her decision.