Monday, October 14, 2013

World Building by Juliet Waldron

There are probably as many approaches to novel writing as there are writers. Some have a tendency to see things as a screenplay—action and dialogue. Others see characters and relationships first, and find that dialogue and action grow from that. Some plot carefully and make a comprehensive outline. Others just begin when a voice begins to speak irresistibly in their mind and their novel grows organically.

Others begin with the world in which the characters will move. Science Fiction and fantasy writers often begin this way. Historical novelists may become intrigued by a particular era, and this fascination leads to the creation of characters who will exist in a “period” world.

These writers probably have the easiest time with what I call “world building,” because setting/or period, or that “Other Land” plays a large part in the imaginary kick that got them writing in the first place.  There are plenty of examples of science fiction, fantasy and historical novels which find their inception in the author’s vision.

In most writing courses you’ll find discussion of using the five senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell, and all of them need to be engaged—not all the time, of course, or nothing else would ever happen—but if your couple are seated side by side at a Regency dining table—even if they are thinking only of each other—either loving each other or hating, as the case may be—they will be surrounded by other people talking, servants coming and going, and a great deal of food. There will be ambiance a-plenty and the sensations will be coming from all combined senses.

In the last 30 years, people have become more than a little distracted from reality—not only by television, but by hand held games, cell phones, not to mention the artificial A/C world we inhabit during hot summers. As a result, we don’t really spend a lot of time paying much attention to where we actually are—and what signals are coming from our environment.

If you are walking down a street in a 3rd World Country—or on some far off planet, or London in Shakespeare’s day--there will be unfamiliar smells as well as unfamiliar sights. For instance, I went to school in the West Indies back in the 60’s, and rode the bus to the central market daily, and then walked up to the school through the narrow city streets. There was gray wash water running in slimy green gutters, the occasional furtive rat; there were fruit rinds and big greasy mango seeds scattered around as well as bottles.

 As well as sight, I experienced unfamiliar smells too. In the long ago West Indies, there was the smell of people who didn’t have facilities for washing other than the a central pump in whatever village they’d come from, of starch filled school uniforms and office clothes and the beginning of the day’s sweat. There was market refuse, discarded fruit and animal manure ripening in the sun, the smell of a hard-worked donkey as he clopped by, the heavy odor of the goats that rode the bus with you. Have you ever imagined what a werewolf or a vampire would actually smell like?  I’m not a fan of these fantasy creatures, so in my imagination—they’d smell like nothing good!

Is your character a temp, facing a vacated desk in a modern office? What’s the desk and keyboard like—are they sticky with coke, covered with ashes? Are they dusty, or spotlessly clean? How does your character deal with this temporary workspace? Does she first head for the washroom and paper towels? Does she bring a can of Lysol with her to work with which she first sprays down everything, especially the phone?

As you can see, this is not only “setting,” it also helps your characters express themselves. How do they react to the environment in which you’ve placed them? Details like this breathe life into character.

As for sound/hearing, we moderns are drowning in it. The environment has never been so distracting or noisy—thanks especially to the internal combustion engine—which roars away on every street and in every yard. Leaf blowers, lawn mowers, trucks, cars and a Saturday parade of loud pipe HD’s coming through town are sonic assaults our ears endure daily. My husband calls it “turning gasoline into noise”. We can’t lift a finger anymore unless it has a motor attached. We live in a theme park town, and know what it’s like to put up with amplified concerts all summer, and an enormous volume of traffic. There are radios and televisions screaming at us in every place we go, from restaurants to doctor’s waiting rooms.   

Conversely, if you are writing about the past, none of this existed. Cities used to be noisy with people and animals, and later, with trains and trolleys, but the countryside remained relatively quiet until the last fifty years. When night came down on the farm, people went to sleep. Two hundred years ago, a candle was an expensive item, and only the rich could afford to illuminate their world after dark. Likewise, music—an orchestra was for the rich, music provided by gifted individuals who were barely an inch more important than the rest of the servants. That used to be the draw of a parade—the fact that you’d have a band playing. Even when I was a kid, people often made music at home. At our house we had a piano and a song book, and we all sometimes sang and played together in the evenings for fun.

In the countryside, you’d hear wind in the trees, or blowing across wheat fields or rustling through a stand of corn. You’d hear songbirds—and there were more of them 100 years ago--and crickets and cicadas and wild geese. The first Europeans to arrive here remarked upon all our wildlife—and especially upon hearing it at night. In their world, they’d eaten just about everything that moved and cut down most of the trees and put everything into cultivation, and so the place they came from was already picked clean of wildlife and therefore relatively quiet. Here, before they got a foothold, nature was thriving. If your characters are in undeveloped setting, like a 1600’s American forest, you might hear a panther scream or a wolf howl.

Finally, we get to taste. Taste and smell are strongly related, as we all have experienced losing some of this sense when we have a bad head cold.  This sense, which we take for granted, is key to our well-being. One of my aunts, now deceased, lost her sense of taste during her eighties. I remember when she was younger, she’d had to be careful about what she ate, for like so many of us, her thirties and forties were spent fighting the battle of the bulge. Now, with this vital sense lost, she was less and less interested in eating, and ended her life weighing 75 pounds.

So, if we return to that Regency banquet, what do we taste—or are we so excited and overwhelmed by the presence of handsome young and very eligible Lord Brimstone Marley seated to our right that we can barely swallow? If we’re on Planet X, how would you describe the taste of Silonian Sea Slug in Ggarian sauce? Was the dish carefully prepared, succulent and fragrant, or has it tough, reheated too many times in the kitchen of a grungy space port diner? 

Romance writers imagine the sense of touch frequently; it’s their stock in trade, but all writers need to reference thist. If you are shopping for clothes, you will certainly run your fingers over the fabric, see if you like the feel of what you are about to put next to your skin. If you are handling a gun, besides the weight, you will be in contact with the material of handle or stock, the cool touch of metal, the slight oily feeling of bullets as you drop them into the chamber of a .38, or push them into a recalcitrant .22 clip.

Fantasy or s/f writers-- you know you’ve got setting work to do which is far beyond the average writer of a contemporary novel. If you are on a distant planet, your special world will need an almost total re-imagining, because nothing would be familiar. This leaves a lot of scope for exercising your imagination, but you’ve got to be careful to construct an environment that’s inwardly consistent.  If you’ve got a lot of distinct and unusual plants and animals, and/or geological anomalies, magical spells, etc. you might want to write a crib sheet for yourself, so that you don’t become tangled up in the richness of your own creation.

Another way of attacking the business of creating a setting is what I call the “day in a life” exercise. That is, from the moment you get up in the morning until your head hits the pillow at night, spend one day really examining all the little routines you and/or others have, no matter how mundane — from brushing teeth to shining shoes, ironing, running errands, shopping, cooking, taking care of pets or organizing children, commuting to work etc. At work, we all develop routines which fill out the day in every office, hospital, factory or wherever. It’s easy to see that these slices of daily life are fodder for a writer of contemporary stories, but they can also provide a taking-off place.

This Day In The Life exercise works directly with contemporary novels of any kind. People have to have occupations, at least nominally, and this will form a background to which the reader can quickly relate. 

 Notice that I call this an “exercise,” because what you are doing is sharpening your perception for all the little tasks that are part of life. These details may not go into your story—if you are writing The Other Boleyn Girl or Shane, they won’t be directly applicable, but they will show you how much goes on, and all the devices that are used, in an “ordinary” day.

I’m going to use the example of historical novels, because that’s what I’m most familiar with. As for Day in a Life--well, what does your character do every day?

Do they work for a living?  Or are they privileged lords and ladies? If they are 16th century, do they brush their teeth—and if so, with what? If a character is a servant in a great house, or an American Indian, or if they are the very eligible Lord Brimstone-Marley—how exactly do they spend their days?

Is a maid permitted to look up from scrubbing the floor when her mistress passes by? Where does dinner come from?  Who serves/prepares it? What food is available in that particular time period? If your character goes to the kitchen, what’s it look like? What utensils and tools are there? Where does the water come from? How often do these characters take a bath and what is required in order to obtain one?

It’s obvious that you better be well-grounded in the period even before you begin. If you aren’t—you will have to pause in your writing, do a little research, and you will instantly find how much easier creating the story becomes.

Learn about the rules of behavior of different genders and social classes, about medicine and food and even a bit about politics. You really should do that research—or you won’t have a leg to stand on because even casual readers watch History &  Discovery Channels and are becoming more sophisticated. For an example of how this has changed, I read a romance back in the 80’s in which a hero and heroine make love “on top” of an upright at Stonehenge. This took more suspension of belief than I could muster—although it had passed by an editor. I don’t think this would pass with many of today’s readers either.

Science Fiction and fantasy writers frequently create their worlds from the bottom up. This gives your imagination—and all your senses free rein. The major pitfall here is that your newly created world needs to be consistent. If you make a world like Tolkien’s Middle Earth with a race of people who are 3 feet tall as well as Elves, Dwarves and men, a backstory is a necessity. Your reader may not need to know it all, but you, the writer, do need to have all this firmly fixed in your head, from social hierarchies to the artifacts of material culture.  

This, needless to say, is a lot work and “imagineering.” Tolkien spent a lifetime creating Middle Earth.  Part of the fascination for the reader of those books is the easy feel of this “other” reality.

A dystopian s/f future can be a little easier to create, because you can use elements of the today’s world, but these too have to adhere to internal rules. In stories like “The Road” there must be a plausible trigger precipitating the downfall of life-as-we-know-it. The resulting world order should be based upon what we already believe about society and/or mankind. Imagine your setting like a game of Jenga or pick-up-sticks. Writers like Philip K. Dick like to just remove a keystone of the structure, and then describe the patterns in which the remaining pieces fall.  Look at: Ubik, Clans of the Alphane Moon, or Blade Runner to see what I mean.

Juliet Waldron's latest BWL release is Roan Rose

More like a gangland war for turf and loot than chivalry, the War of Roses disrupted the life of the English commoners for hundreds of years. Roan Rose is the story of one of these, a girl born on the Yorkshire dales. When the Countess of Warwick, decides to take sturdy, gentle Rose to Middleham Castle to be companion and bed-time poppet for her youngest daughter, her fate is changed forever.

Rose bonds strongly with Anne Neville, her young mistress. She also meets a royal boy enduring his knightly training—Richard of Gloucester, King Edward’s little brother. The noble children have illness and accidents as they grow, but Rose remains a constant, always there to nurse and serve.

Rose bears intimate witness to the passions, betrayals, battles and all the reversals of fortune which will shape her lady’s life—and her own. Anne Neville will briefly become a Queen, and Richard, Rose’s secret love, will become a King, one whose name has become synonymous with evil. When the King is betrayed and slain at Bosworth Field, Rose returns to a peasant’s hard life. She has one final service to perform.

…a beautiful story of love and loyalty set during the tumultuous reign of Richard III...

…I loved the strength of this woman…

…Powerful Sense of Time and Place…

…Waldron certainly knows her history…Yet despite its accuracy … Roan Rose is ultimately a book about character.

“Not all who wander are lost.” Juliet Waldron earned a B. A. in English, but has worked at jobs ranging from artist’s model to brokerage. Twenty years ago, after raising her children, she dropped out of 9-5 and began to researching her way into The Past. Three of the resulting thirteen historical novels are now published. Mozart’s Wife won the 1st Independent e-Book Award. Genesee won the 2003 Epic Award for Best Historical. She enjoys putting what she has learned about people, places, and relationships into her stories. 

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