World Building: Story Fodder!

Many a time, I will “share” a story on Facebook using a header like “Story fodder!” or “Start your synopsis NOW!” There are sooo many news articles out there that just make the writer in me go, “Oh! Oh! I know where to go from there!” It is, apparently, a “writer thing”. I saw this story just today, and it melded so well into the topic, I’m including the link:

http://www.thehistoryblog.com/archives/24420

It’s all about a unique gold ring that was found in an English field…and an unusual curse found at nearby temple ruins that happen to mention a lost ring—and the writer who was intrigued by the local archeology dig and the potential links between the two. That author? J.R.R. Tolkein.

It doesn’t matter what the story is:

You’ll often hear writers trying to explain what they do talking about the “What if…?” Often followed by the, “And then what happened?” And I pause here in typing and wonder, “Do I need to explain this more? It seems pretty obvious to me.” THIS is what happens with writers. If it’s the start of the process, something triggers the “What if…?” A photo, a word, an overheard snippet of conversation, a desperate daydream during a really boring meeting or class can become the start of a story. A photo illustrating a news article provides a certain perfect thing for your characters already under development. A news story can provide the perfect “Ah ha!” moment for your plot…

…A glimpse of a impractical evening dress in your heroine’s favorite color makes you suddenly want a scene with her desperately wishing she could afford it or had a place she needed to wear it…and then wearing it…and the hero trying to seduce her out of it…or snatching her into adventure where she has to cope with being in it…

…Or the golden Roman coin with a lion etched on the back morphs into the griffin talisman worn by the young hero battling an evil magician on another planet…

…or the annoying lyrics of the song your daughter is playing over and over and over again makes you say, “HA! MY heroine wouldn’t put up with that—she’d sit her lover down and…” and suddenly you’ve got the best breakup fight scene you’ve ever written.

World building pulls from wherever it needs to pull to get the story told. More on that next time…

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World Building: Names, Languages, and Mythos

Some of the most challenging world building for me is in the paranormal area. I have stories centered around a pack of shapeshifters who can move from human form to wolf form. “Oh, werewolves,” you say. Nope. Not quite. The term “werewolf” implies things in modern day…they were bitten by another werewolf. No, they weren’t. They lose control and rampage through the countryside at night. Nope. They can’t control when they change—and it’s under the full moon. Not so much. They’re basically a big, hairy person walking on two legs with a beast’s head. Oh, seriously not. So the question becomes: What do you call them?

Well…that’s where it gets complicated. Again, you don’t want to call them something someone else is already using. Or that has been used for a famous movie or something. And in werewolf/shapeshifter stories, that’s an extensive field to cover. I had a term I planned to use when I finally got these stories out of my head and onto paper. And someone else wrote a series of books using that term. *ARGH* Her characters are entirely different from mine, and it’s set on a different planet. Oh, well, doesn’t matter. So, I came up with another term. And it got used by a new author I hadn’t read yet as the name of her main Pack of werewolf-like shifters. Again, I was using it for the entire race of shifters…doesn’t matter. The next time that happened, I gave up—gave up on using a term in English.

Sure, I can just make something up, except that when I tried, they mostly just sounded stupid. I realized what I need was something believable…but, to be believable, there needs to be some sort of backstory to the word.

When I was first coming up with these stories, I had seen a special on the Falling Lakes in Croatia, and the wildlife there, and was fascinated. It’s on my short list of places to visit someday. I always thought it’d be a fascinating place to have my wolves come from in their background. HOWEVER, as I am terrible at making up my mind, I am also a huge fan of Celtic stuff, and have always had a strong interest/draw towards Scotland and Ireland. I was torn on which direction to go.

Luckily, research is fun and useful! I checked out some information on Celtic culture and discovered the Celts—and all their little foibles like Celtic knotwork—migrated well into middle Europe, through Hungary, and into what is today Croatia. Bwa ha ha—I can have BOTH!

The Web is a wonderful place. I found a handy translator site that had Irish (Gaelic), Croatian, and Hungarian options, another one that offered Old English, and a third that did Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, and Irish Gaelic. Let me first say how grateful I am that modern English doesn’t use all the freaking accent marks, carets, umlauts, etc., that other languages do! And I found websites that discuss ancient gods, goddesses, and folk tales that have all sorts of tie-ins to werewolves, shapeshifting, and intelligent wolves in general.

So the last week has been full of fun, as I type in terms to translate and come up with strings of unpronounceable things in two to five languages and then start massaging them. Unpronounceable isn’t going to work.  They need to sound good out loud. And be easy to say.  And not stop the reader’s eye as it crosses the page. And not sound stupid…

World Building: Basics

I wonder if non-writers get the process of world building. I know as a reader, I chalked it off as just “what writers did”. Writers make up worlds. Duh. But, there is more to it than that. World building establishes consistency and consistency adds to the believability of your setting. If you’re writing vampire novels, and in book 1, sunlight is deadly to them, but in book 2, they’re fine wandering around outside at high noon, there’s a problem–unless you provide a darn good reason for the change. Note: “I need it for the plot” is not a darn good reason. Throw in a witch who casts a spell on them. Fine. Or a magic item that protects them. Great. But you can’t just have it kill on Monday and not kill on Tuesday.

But that’s the bleeding obvious part of it. There’s more. And it’s what makes your story yours. There are a lot of books out there, and a lot of writers. Thankfully, all the books are different. If you like paranormal stories, you have a variety to choose from. Vampire books: Do you like them dark? Gory? Angst-y? An action-adventure with blood-suckers? Do you like the vampires to be the good guys or the bad guys—or a mix of each? Maybe you like them funny…or comedic…or even slapstick. You can find any of those, and each is a completely different kind of read.

One of my series features a government agency. Kind of like the CIA…but not. Kind of like the FBI…but not. But what I don’t want it to be is “just like” another author’s fictional agency. The name has to be different. The mission has to be at least a little different. We don’t want to just steal M from Ian Fleming to run the place. Or Moneypenny. Or Q. And yet…I need someone in charge. Someone consistent from book to book. And they need to look the same and talk the same from book 1 to book…whatever. If Sven is a six-foot-four blond Swede with an accent in book 1, he better not be easily blending with the pygmy aboriginal terrorists in book 4 unless he’s also one hell of a disguise expert.

Some of my books take place in a fictional town in the western United States. By book 3, I started losing track of the name of the school principal, the woman who ran the sewing shop, and the name of the hero’s sister’s best friend’s husband. I broke down and made the Dreaded Spreadsheet. (Note: I am NOT a plotter, organizer, index-carder, etc., when it comes to this. But I was desperate.) I started jotting down the basics…heroine, her kids. Hero, his sibling and parents. Heroine’s coworkers (which are cross-overs from their own books, so have the same basic framework of people around them). Hero’s coworkers. Various townfolk. The bad guy. The bad guy’s minions. I look down and I realize I have 92 different characters I’m juggling. No wonder I’m having issues! Yeah, most of them are minor characters and don’t even get names. But, you don’t want to have every secondary character in every book named “Charlie”. Or all of them be a blue-eyed blonde in jeans. Or have every child in every book be a 9-year-old. Readers notice these things.

Part of world building is innate. It’s the writer’s voice, preferences, and knowledge base. The other parts of world building involve interwoven layers of details and craft.