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Building Worlds in Fantasy Fiction

People get up in the morning, eat food, do things and go to sleep. This all happens in our physical world. What does that world look like? It might be assumed that a story set in Cape Town or New Your or Beijing of today requires little or no detailed descriptions. Writers can draw on actual buildings, customs and politics. Yet, all stories benefit from descriptions of the world where they occur. Some readers may have never been to Beijing and others might remember or imagine it in a far different way than the author intended. Novels that take place in worlds that readers can envision engage readers better and make the stories memorable.

When authors set their tales in a world of fantasy and magic, the details must be created. This is world building. The story might be set in contemporary times, such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Yet, the elements of magic and the settings of Hogwarts are all creations of the author. There is no actual school of magic and wizardry, nor are there dragons and unicorns. The books draw on many established concepts such as castles and fantastic beasts, yet the details had to be shaped by the author to engage readers.

Fantasy stories can be set in completely different worlds that never existed. There were no hobbits until J.R.R. Tolkien put them in Middle Earth, which itself does not exist. The world of his imagination draws from earlier tales from largely European cultures and, as with Harry Potter, it is fashioned in a uniquely detailed way.

A clearly defined world in a fantasy story is vital in maintaining the suspension of belief required for readers to become absorbed in them, be they sword & sorcery adventures of epic tomes.

Fantasy stories are really historical fictions set in non-existent worlds. As such, they have all the elements of the normal world; cultures, politics, literature, customs and beliefs. Societies can cooperate or make war on each other. People have hopes, aspirations, fears, successes and failures. The difference between the real and fantasy world is in how the details of everyday life in these fictional worlds are connected and how they are influenced by additional factors such as magic and fantastic creatures.

Fantasy worlds are governed by their own internal logic that must be consistent throughout the story in the same way as technology in the real world behaves dependably (except for computers which are the devil’s plating and intended to torment us). If a certain type of spell is invoked one way in a scene, it must be invoked the same way in every scene. The details can be as imaginative as the author wishes as long as they are built in a way as to appear organic to the world. Readers will be distracted if a wizard draws a circle in the air to conjure wine and food in one chapter and claps hands together to create the same thing in another chapter. The one thing you do not need to do is explain or justify how magic works. It is just a given as long as the reader sees that it functions the same in every instance. In science fiction, writers often provide details about technologies in order to validate events in the plot. This is not required in Fantasy. Magic is just a part of each world’s fabric like the wind and rain. It occurs and readers will accept that. You should, however, show magic being used in scenes rather than just telling about it in exposition.

In making up geographies, cities, customs, religions, festivals and so forth, the sky is the limit. Writers can create floating towns, navigable rivers of lava, flies the size of boulders, portals between worlds and anything else they can dream up. Actual landscapes and settlements can serve as models to inspire the descriptions. Particular settings can influence the people who live there in customs and beliefs as is true in the real world. In Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, which is as much mythology as science fiction, the desert planet of Arrakis shaped the Fremen and influenced their culture, rituals and values.

When creating cultures, writers will often be influenced consciously or subconsciously by existing ones here on Earth whether contemporary or historical. Is a nation in a fantasy book similar to ones found in Europe, Africa or Asia? Do customs in the story resemble those from ancient Persia, European mythology or North American indigenous oral traditions? Does everyone in a world hold the same cultural values and have the same skin of color or are there peoples of multiple races and ethnic backgrounds? A danger writers can face is grabbing elements of different cultures or religions without understanding or respecting them. A created culture in a book can draw elements from many real world ones. Picking rituals and tales from cultures without understanding their importance to the original societies can lead to prose that are insulting and hurtful to a group of people. It can also lead to low book sales among large numbers of the readers.

The process authors use to build worlds varies. Some write out details before starting a book that establish magic, magical creatures, character traits, civilizations, lands, maps and the like. From this, an author can gain a grounding for the setting and people of the book. As with research for historical novels, much more detail will be created than ever winds up in the story. Some authors may be tempted to add all the made up research, as some authors want to do with their reteach for historical fiction. This should be avoided. The point of research, either in the real world or a fantasy setting, is to immerse authors in the world to such a degree that they fully understand their creations. From this, they can select key items that demonstrate those worlds and societies to readers.

I think about world building before I start a new book but I don’t spend a lot of time making up details about the world and characters before writing the story. I do make notes as I write to mull over choices about how magic works, the attributers of different characters or what kinds of terrain the novel takes place. I mostly create the details as I write in an organic process where the act of writing a set of sentences suggests how characters will react in the future and what physical attributes exist. To do this, I have to keep a sense of the plot and the characters in my head as I write, even for novels that exceed three-hundred pages. This allows my mind to roam and be unfettered with too many preconceived notions so that the story and the actions of the characters can flow and change as real life does while we encounter the unexpected, no matter how well we plan.

Not all world building occurs on paper or a computer screen. Sometimes, I will be about to fall off to sleep when an idea or the solution to a plot problem pops into my head. Then, I write it down on a notepad that I always keep close by.

Because of this, the first drafts are filled with inconsistences and dead ends that have to be altered and removed in the second, third and fourth drafts. This is not an impediment to me nor does it slow me down. I, and many other writers, use the first draft just to get ideas out so they can be crafted in subsequent drafts. As such, my first drafts are somewhat like highly detailed outlines but far more flexible to allow the story and characters to evolve. I don’t actually know what the book is about until I finish the first draft, and even then, things will change in subsequent drafts

All the magical spells, mountains and cultural aspects will become more consistent as I comb the work until I feel I have accomplished what I really want to say and established a world that, hopefully, readers feel they can walk into.

David A. Wimsett worked in the computer industry for over four decades and ran his own consulting firm before retiring from it to devote all his time to writing and publishing. His works include the Carandir Saga that takes place in a multicultural world of gender equality and includes Dragons Unremembered and Half Awakened Dreams. Covenant With the Dragons, the third and final book in the series, will be released in 2022.

If something stands out in your writing, remove it

Crafting a novel takes place through the process of rewriting the book. The first draft is only a framework of the story you want to tell. Some beginning writers run their first draft through spell check and send out the manuscript, thinking they are finished. This is a mistake.

Even this article has gone through eight rewrites. After putting down ideas I wanted to discuss, I reread and edited the first draft, changing words here, taking some things out there and adding new material where it was needed. This was followed by a second edited draft with more changes as I looked for the exact words to use while making certain that the points I wanted to express were clear. After the eighth draft, I posted the article.

Of course, you also need to check for misspellings, typographical errors, missing words and other grammatical problems. I’m always shocked by how many times I can reread a manuscript I’ve written and come across a sentence such as, “They walked into building” when I intended to write “They walked into the building.” My mind subconsciously added the word the each time I read the piece. Sometimes these things go undetected until after the manuscript goes to my editor.

This is one of the reasons why anyone who intends to write professionally must hire a professional editor and not just have a friend or relative look over the work. Your friends and relatives may not be trained and experienced in editing manuscripts and they will usually tell you that the writing is wonderful because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. Worse yet, some writers send out manuscripts without having anyone else look at them.

Those who want to write on a professional level must invest time in rewriting. Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

There are many things to consider when rewriting. In the end, the writing itself must disappear to reveal only the story and the characters. A book can present themes and ideas, but without a story that involves readers in the characters, the book becomes a lecture and not a novel.

When readers pause to say, “Wasn’t that a clever turn of phrase”, they are taken out of the story and slammed back into their ordinary lives, dispelling the suspension of disbelief that is essential in storytelling, which must immerse readers beyond distraction.

Here is a good rule of thumb. If, in rereading your work, you come across something that stands out and causes you to become conscious of the writing itself, remove that word, phrase, description, piece of dialogue or characterization. If you noticed it, so will your readers. The story will stumble and any points you wanted to make will be interrupted.

Professional writing is not an academic excursive in showing off how much you know about writing craft, it is using the craft of writing to reveal the material with such impact that the physical presentation becomes invisible. Mark Childress, author of Crazy in Alabama, says to “Kill your darlings.”

Writers may believe that they can’t remove material because they might not be able to think of something else. In truth, writers have an inexhaustible source of material within themselves and their imaginations to create new prose that describes characters and situations. Others hope to impress readers by demonstrating a command of language. This is like drawing a set of gorgeous drapes across a picture window and blocking the view from outside.

You are the first editor in a rewrite, and you must be ruthless with yourself. Fight your ego if it tells you to keep material that does not serve the telling the story or the revelation of the characters.

David A. Wimsett is the author of Beyond the Shallow, a novel of a woman overcoming prejudice and searching for herself amidst rumors of the selkies from Celtic mythology, and Dragons Unremembered: Volume I of the Carandir Saga, a fantasy epic set in a world of gender equality where women and men have the same rights, opportunities and authority. The second volume of the saga, Half Awakened Dreams, will be released on September 21, 2020. He is a member of the Writers' Union of Canada and the Canadian Freelance Guild.

How I Write

There are a wide variety of processes that different authors use to create their books. I can’t say that any one is better than another. Everyone has to choose the way they work best. Here is a little insight as to how I create stories.

One thing is universal. Writing any fiction, especially a novel, requires dedication, time and perseverance. Most successful authors will advise that you write every day, even if you only produce a paragraph. If you write a page a day, in a year you have the first draft of a novel. You are also intimately immersed in your story and charters. This allows you see the relationships of story and people clearly so that the work remains consistent.

Writing every day is good advice, and it is best to strive for as a goal. Of course, very few writers work every single day. We take vacations, enjoy holidays and spend time with our friends and family. I do take breaks. We all need them. Still, I work almost every day on articles, blogs and books. I take a paper notebook and a pen with me everywhere I go and write when I am waiting for a plane, a bus or a meeting. I began my fantasy novel Half Awakened Dreams: Volume II of the Carandir Saga on a spiral notebook in a restaurant when I was having dinner after a pod cast conference.

Some authors outline their stories in generalities or details. This can be especially helpful when writing mysteries or thrillers because these kinds of stories contain puzzles and the author has to organize all the pieces.

I have never worked from an outline. An outline can be used to assemble thoughts and elements, but it can also be restrictive. My preference is to start with an idea and perhaps a vague sense of where I’m heading, though none of my novels have actually opened the way I initially conceived them or finished the way I envisioned.

I allow the plot and the characters to grow organically. As I write, the process of creating the plot and characters suggest things to me that I had not thought of when I began. A plot can take off in an entirely unexpected way. As I become more familiar with the material, characters can expose aspects in my mind that were not thought of before. I usually have no idea of what will happen until I come to that part of the book. It’s like I’m watching a movie in my head and am constantly surprised by turns of events. If I had started with an outline, I would either be restricted in letting my imagination expand so that I would be forced to follow the outline or I would have had to constantly adjust the outline which would be double the work. I’m a little lazy, so I just write it once.

There is a symbiotic relationship between plots and characters. Plot places characters in situations where they must make decisions that expose their essence and the changed character’s subsequent actions alter the plot. For instance, say a character is planning to paint the kitchen on a Saturday. A call comes from a long lost relative. This causes the character to realize the lack of time spent with an aging parent. The character abandons the idea of painting the kitchen and pays a visit on that parent, an action that can bring about more character revelations and plot elements.

Now, I just created that on the fly. I knew I wanted to demonstrate the relationship between characters and plots, but I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I started with a character planning to do something, then the notion of an interruption by a forgotten relative came to mind, followed by the idea that this causes an emotional dilemma in the character who reflects on a neglected parent and that causes the character to abandon the original plan. In other words, I just made it up as I went. It was an exercise in discovery. If this story were to continue, it could offer the ability to explore any of the characters and dig deeper into their thoughts and emotions. The plot would unfold as the characters interacted. Poof. You have the beginnings of a novel. If anyone wants to take this idea and run with it, please feel free to do so.

Some writers work in chronological order starting at the beginning of the story and continuing until they reach the end. I initially start my books this way, but as soon as I have a foothold, I often realize that there are scenes I will need, though I may not know where they will be put. Instead of continuing ahead, I will stop from time to time and create those scenes out of the chronological timeframe.

They may be small, standalone plots that I will insert in whole someplace during the first draft or even in subsequent drafts. They may also be entire subplots that take place over an extended period of time. I might insert these in full or break it up and place the pieces in different spots as they are needed to move the plot forward or give insight to characters and their motivations. As I move through discovering the story, I will see where a previously written piece should fit in. Not all of this material will be used. Nothing can go into the finished book that does not move the story forward and enhance the characters. No matter how well written something is, if it does not contribute to the book it has to be left out. Be prepared to rewrite your novel in multiple drafts and allow yourself to change anything during the process.

This can be difficult for many beginning writers. They see the time and care they took and are afraid that if they discard any material they will not have enough to fill up their novel. Everyone who wants to write on a professional level must realize that all authors have an inexhaustible source of material within them. Their imaginations can manufacture new plot devices and new character interactions with just a little concentration. At 320 pages, Dragons Unremembered: Volume I of the Carandir Saga is 100,000 words in length. I threw out over 700,000 words of material. Entire plot lines, lands, peoples, legends and more sit in file folders that no one will ever see. Some of the material was just plain bad and had to go. Some of it bordered too closely on Tolkien’s elves and dwarves. I wanted original material without either. Other scenes were very well written but did not fit into the story.

Mark Childress, author or Crazy in Alabama, says to, “Kill your darlings.” If it stands out, if it draws attention to itself and takes attention away from the plot and character, get rid of it, no matter how much you love it. Remember, there’s always more where that came from.

Writing Gender Neutral Prose

For several decades, writers producing technical and nonfiction material have struggled with how to compose gender neutral prose. Before the 1970s the word “Man” was often used to mean all people, male and female. Likewise, the word “He” was used to mean a specific person who was either female or male. Instructions in manuals would read, “When the operator sees the red light flash they must press the blue button.” This created a fender imbalance in the language and implied that women were merely extensions of men.

Since then, society has looked for ways to be gender inclusive in writing. The first attempt was to write, “he or she.” Alternatives have been “she or he” – “he/she” – “she/he” and “s/he.” These were often rotated so that each gender reference alternately appeared first in sentences .

Not only are these phrases awkward, they persist in pointing out gender inequality by making a distinction. In addition, there is the question of who goes first, the male or the female reference.

Some people have suggested introducing new pronouns that are gender natural. None have been adopted. Even though the English language is very malleable and changes occur frequently, there are some words that are highly resistant to change. Those words include pronouns.

Others have suggested that the plural pronoun “they” be use in a singular sentence, such as, “When the operator sees the red light flash they must press the blue button.” This is simply not grammatically correct. Mixing singular with plural in a sentence sounds and reads wrong.

So, what is the solution? I have wrestled with this for years in writing articles, business documents and technical manuals. I suggest that writers always make their sentences plural unless they are speaking about a particular person, as in, “When operators see the red light flash, they must press the blue button.” There is no need for the ungainly “he or she” or to break grammar rules by combining plural and singular in a sentence. This is simple, flows seamlessly and does not bring up images of gender imbalance because there is no gender reference when writing in general terms.

If writers speak of a particular person, they may use "he" for males and "she" for females, as in, “Mary drove her car to work” or “Tom picked up his dry cleaning.”

There can be cases where a specific person being described does not want to be associated with a gender at all. A sentence could read, ”Feglarglata got into the car and drove to the store.” A problem arises if you want to say that a specific person drove to the store in a car owned by that individual.

This is simple when writing in first person. “I got into my car and drove to the store.” Pronounce such as ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘you’, ‘us’ and ‘them’ are gender neutral.

In the third person you might say, “Feglarglata got into the car owned by Feglarglata and drove to the store.” Repeating the individual’s name avoids any gender specific pronouns, but it is a little long winded and a bit awkward.

The sentence could also be written, ”Feglarglata got into its car and drove to the store.” This works, but addressing a person as ‘it’ sounds harsh and impersonal.

It is possible to write a complete story without any reference to gender and not get bogged down. Consider this tale.

Feglarglata owned a car and drove it to the store. It was a short trip and the scenery was pleasant. After finding a parking space near the front door, it was a quick walk into the store to buy some bread and vegetables for the party that evening. Feglarglata was looking forward to seeing new and old friends alike. There would certainly be an enjoyable game of charades.

The trip home passed the old city hall that had been converted into a community center. Childhood memories surfaced of days spent playing softball and making crafts.

At home, the groceries were put away. A quick inspection of the kitchen and living room showed that everything was ready for the party.

The doorbell rang and Grylke walked into the living room sporting a wide smile. The old friend said, “I have been looking forward to this. I saw the others at launch and they are all coming”.

The two of them shook hands. Feglarglata said, “Can you help me bring some chairs in from the kitchen. We should be able to finish before anyone else arrives.” As soon as they were done, the doorbell sounded again.

Just the (Necessary) Facts: Researching historical fiction

Historical fiction requires the same command of writing craft as is found in any genre. In addition, writers of historical fiction must conduct intense research into the people, objects and locations of the time being written about. Authors must become immersed in the subject while building stories and characters that create unique books.

Research can take many forms; books, newspapers and magazines from the period, lectures, museums, videos, archival films, interviews, search engines and physical journeys to the places where the book takes place. I used all of these in researching a historical novel. Traveling to the actual location and visiting museums gave me the feel of the place and provided context to period exhibits. Travelogue lectures and videos were like guided tours. Archival films documented specifics about clothing, transportation and current affairs. The Internet gave me details about temperature, population, landscape, customs and festivals. Original and microfilmed copies of period magazines and newspapers filed in gaps concerning everyday life, anxieties and hopes. The advertisements were very interesting because they highlighted desires and morals of the time.

If done thoroughly, research will produce volumes of notes. Yet, authors will only want to use a fraction of the facts they gather. Some might question this after making such an investment in research and think that they need to include everything they have discovered because it is so interesting. This is a mistake. A historical novel is not a text book. It must contain just enough details to set the novel in the time period without overwhelming the reader. Too many facts distract the reader from the plot and character development. It’s important to reach a balance.

Consider a paragraph that uses extensive historical facts, such as, “Aaron opened the door of the 1962 Chevy Impala and sat in the driver’s seat. It had C pillar styling that was not offered in the 4-door hardtop. The engine was a 409 cubic-incher that only came with a standard transmission. It was a true legacy to Swiss race car driver Louis Chevrolet (1879 – 1941) and his partner William C. Durant (1861-1947) who started the Chevrolet Motor Car Company on November 3, 1911. Aaron knew this car would win the race and save the orphanage.”

All of these fact are real, and may be of interest to car enthusiasts, but it is far too much information for the majority of readers. That Aaron has found a fast car that will win a race to save the orphanage is lost in the words. It would be far better to write, “Aaron opened the door of the 1962 Chevy Impala and sat in the driver’s seat. Surly, the big 409 cubic-inch engine would win the race and save the orphanage.”

That is not to say you should leave out all the facts you discover. One of the things readers seek in historical fiction is a sense of the time and place. Descriptions of houses, rooms, clothing, transportation and implements create the feeling of a time gone by, but you should be selective in what you include. I wrote a historical novel in which I needed to get some lye that would be used in a future scene into a character’s pocket. This was both setting and foreshadowing, so it needed it to be memorable but subtle. I choose to have another character make soap while the main character helped. I researched soap making and learned many details. I used very few of those facts in the scene. The description of soap making consists of a general overview that gives the sense of making soap in the time period while leaving out detailed specifics, except for one. The character making the soap uses one type of lye over another, explaining that it makes softer soap but has a more violent reaction when exposed to water. The main character ties some left over lye in a handkerchief and puts it in a pocket. The fact that the lye was more active was very important to the plot a few chapters later.

When writing about actual historical figures, you cannot change known, historical facts. Marie Curie discovered radium and died from radiation poisoning at the age of 66, but an author can’t have her stop experimenting and live to be 100. Harriet Tubman was an abolitionist who was a former slave. She organized the underground railway to help other escaped slaves, but a historical novel cannot have her become president of the United States. Whatever documented actions a historical person took cannot be changed in a book. However, the author has complete leeway to explore the private moments in their lives when there is no known record of what they did or did not do, say or think. These unknown emotions, dreams, desires, etc. are fair game. Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica is a passionate condemnation of the Spanish civil war. The intent and result are evident, yet, who has crawled inside the mind on Picasso to know exactly what he was feeling and thinking at the time? Authors of a historical novel can do this.

Historical fiction can be entertaining, informative and thought provoking. It can also shed light on our contemporary world by showing us what has changed and what has not, thus giving us the opportunity to grow as societies and individuals. Authors can do this by choosing the right details, creating memorable characters and telling great stories within the chosen time period. thin the chosen time period.