Where Story Happens

When I started writing stories in New Glory several years ago, I refused to call it a setting. I couldn’t tell you why, but I knew somewhere in the back of my mind it was something much bigger than that. When I started hanging around game writers, I picked up the term “story world”, which seemed much more fitting for the place I was building in my mind, in my notes, in my stories.

Over the last couple of weeks, the online writing program I’ve been participating in has been discussing setting, which turned into a discussion of “world” vs. “setting”. So many writers learn and practice setting, the when and where of a story. So many science fiction and fantasy writers learn setting, but then learn and practice worldbuilding, the wider space that contains the when, where, and culture. The first group, after listening to the idea of world and how it works, were definitely open to exploring how that affects their own practices with setting.

As part of the discussion, we were asked to think about our own definitions of world and setting. It was crazy how many of us described “world” as the much larger landscape where many stories can happen. For those of us more used to thinking in terms of worldbuilding, it was amazing how many of us described “setting” as the place and time where this one story happens.

And that’s really how it goes. “World” is the bigger picture, the cultures, the lives, the geography, the boundaries. “Setting” is where the character was when the story happened. If we were to discuss this in terms of the real world, “world” might be your home country and “setting” might be the corner pub. It’s that simple.

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The Challenges of Building a Storyworld

Several years ago, I started working on what started out as a cyberpunk story world. I wanted some futuristic place of my own that would allow me to play with ideas I want to explore in the course of my stories and projects. I even wrote a short story set in that world to get the ball rolling. (I was still writing novel manuscripts at the time, so writing a short story was a pretty big deal for me.)

And then the storyworld became a notebook section where I would jot down random story ideas and worldbuilding notes. One would argue that allowing an idea this big to percolate is wise, but ultimately it wasn’t getting me anywhere. It certainly wasn’t getting me closer to having my own storyworld to play in. So, at the beginning of the year, I decided to start working on the various story ideas I’d been jotting down for years. Many of them combined nicely into what is slowly becoming short story collections.

There has been a problem, though. My world notes have historically been scattered across physical and virtual notebooks, many of them incomplete or not really thought out yet. That’s been a stumbling block because I tend to run into that problem while I’m in “OMG! Must write all the things!” mode, and stopping to take the time to resolve the scattered notes I need for a particular story has often been enough to stop all forward motion on the story itself. Not exactly productive.

It occurred to me a couple of months ago that I could organize as I go, that I could focus my worldbuilding efforts on what the current story needs versus what already exists for the world and handle it in these little bite-sized moments. When the story draft is finished, it’s much easier to go back through the current gathered notes and shake them out to match what has become the reality of the world. So with each story, the world becomes that much more solid, with a clear example of the world in action. It also allows me to test out world ideas and see how they would play out in a practical setting before making them a confirmed piece of the world.

If anything, it’s added another layer of experimenting and playing with my world, and really letting me get into how things work and how they got the way they are. The hardest part now…is keeping the timeline straight and keeping story groups in the right distance timewise from other stories.

Using the Recording Phase to Build a Storyworld

In the Discovery series, I showed a little bit of how I implement my PLE practice. I thought I’d do the same for the Recording series, by sharing a little bit about my morning routine. Every morning, I read through, my email, my feedly, and my Lists on Twitter and Facebook. Some days, it’s fairly routine. Some days, I open a bunch of links as I’m going through, and then I go back to those links and scan them. If they’re interesting or relate to one of my projects, I save them to Instapaper for closer reading.

In Instapaper (and also Springpad), I have folders set up for projects I’m currently working on. (In Springpad, it’s a tag.) One of my most active folders/tags is the one for New Glory, my futuristic storyworld I’ve been working on for years. New Glory is a crossroads created by religious people for political purposes. (Strangely enough, it wasn’t created for religious political purposes. That came later!) I have certain ideas in my head for various points in New Glory’s history, some that when I started working on New Glory in 2006 weren’t anything more than the imaginations of science fiction writers. But being the good little science fiction fan and writer, I follow technology blogs and social media types, and some of the very things I thought I was so clever for coming up with at some point in the last eight years…are now coming into existence, or in some cases just got overshot. So every time I see an article on one of my technologies of interest, I save it to the New Glory folder in Instapaper for later review.

feedly, the Lists/Interests features on social media, and Instapaper are my primary Recording tools for feeding my projects, but I find a simple routine works pretty well for me and keeps things moving. I do sometimes use Springpad or Pinterest to save some items, but those are rare.

For me, it was about finding interesting sources, and then finding easy ways to keep up with everything, to save what I wanted, and to organize what I was saving, and then streamlining that process into something I could work with. And that’s really what you will have to do: Figure out what tools work best with your own projects and workflow, and then make them serve you.

Fleshing Out a Story World

There’s a problem that comes when you build a storyworld as time permits over several years – the real world keeps on turning. And people in that real world keep doing cool things that shape and change your thinking. New developments in science and technology keep revolutionizing the world, making the speculative and fantastical ordinary. Or maybe that’s just because I write science fiction.

It’s just about the last item on my priority list, but my storyworld New Glory shakes more and more into place every few months. At first, I’d thought to build it by developing aspects I found interesting…but that didn’t last long. Then, I thought I’d build it by developing aspects I needed for the story I was working on at the moment. That was similarly doomed. Oddly enough, neither was the right approach. I’ve needed to work on the city both ways at the same time.

This has a lot to do with the fact that a world is a series of systems. Any scientist could tell you this, but it took forever for my inner former informal science teacher to really catch on to what that meant in creating a fictional world. So, if you take on the brave challenge of creating a fictional world, don’t do what I did and create multiple layers within the same city your first time out. Instead, identify the basic systems in play — biological, geographical, political, etc. — and start fleshing them out, taking note of where and how they intersect and affect each other. Then, you can explore those intersections a bit more closely.

Often, you’ll find that in exploring these system seams, you’ll create points of tension that will make your world that much more interesting to write in and that will keep you coming back to write in that world more often.

The Desert Celery

That biology class you slept through because you were going to be a writer anyway? Yeah…that was a bad decision if your goal was to be a fantasy or science fiction writer. One of the easiest mistakes fantasy and science fiction writers make is having plant and animal life mismatched to their ecological regions.

More often than not, it happens because the writer thinks their new creation would just be cool, and they don’t give a whole lot of thought to how that plant or animal would survive in its environment. Remember my story about setting my flourishing metropolis? People need water to survive. So do a fairly decent number of plants and animals. And those that don’t have made some sort of adaptation to make surviving with little accessible water possible. A prime real-world example of this is the cactus, which soaks up and stores water for drier periods. Can you imagine putting celery, a plant that thrives in moist conditions, in a desert? It would be dead in a matter of days.

This isn’t to say you can’t have a plant or animal in an ecological setting it normally wouldn’t survive in. But you do need to think about how this organism got into that setting, why it decided to adapt to that setting, and how it adapted to that setting. Also, you have to remember that these adaptations don’t often happen in a single generation. They happen gradually over the course of at least a few generations, depending on how major a change it is. It has to make sense within the context of your world’s ecology to make sense to the reader. (This is one of those sticky points that will ruin a reader’s suspension of disbelief.)

As you’re developing the world your story takes place in, remember to think through placing plants and animals. The more logical your decisions are in your own mind (because you really don’t have to show it to readers unless you’re writing hard science fiction or giving behind-the-scenes interviews), the more believable it will be to your reader, and the less often you will shock the reader out of the story.

Sorting Out the Major Personalities

One of the things I’ve wrestled with in developing New Glory is the fact that I took bits of ideas and stories that originally had nothing to do with each other and dumped them in the same geographical space, a fact that’s most clear when you look at the anchoring elements of the city and surrounding area – the MegaCorps and the monasteries.

When I first started working on the setting that has become the core of New Glory, I was telling a short story that I envisioned as being set in this Cyberpunk 2020-style city. One of the defining characteristics (for me, anyway) of a Cyberpunk 2020 setting is these megacorporations that have more power than they really should and abusing that to their benefit. So, I started with the first MegaCorp, and soon decided I need five.

I slowly started defining each MegaCorp (the MegaCorps together have their own style of character sheet in my notes), figuring out what each specialized in and a little bit about how they expressed that. I tried to make them address a typical community’s needs (health, banking, news) and genre-specific needs (information brokering, cybernetics). But I never really explored the physical space of New Glory, and as a result I had no idea where any of these companies existed within the city.

It worked for a while…and then I merged the monasteries into the world. The monasteries (which I thought I had written about previously) are governed entirely by symbolism. Their location within the region was set right from the start, dictated by that symbolism.

Needless to say, it made for interesting map-making when I started trying to better understand the organization of New Glory.

Recently, whole wrestling with mapping out New Glory, it became clear that the forced placement of the monasteries forced where the MegaCorps had to be. The health-focused MegaCorp is on the opposite side of the city from the monastery that offers healing services because the MegaCorps sees that monastery as charlatans and the New Glory-equivalent of snake oil salesmen. The banking-focused MegaCorps elected to be close to the monastery that focused on martial arts and related skills because they wanted what they perceived as the best protection in the region. The information brokering MegaCorp hangs out by the scholarly monastery because those Dragons have the best research resources sometimes. The other two could have fit anywhere, and they slotted in nicely to the gap created by the others.

Something I’d been stressing over for week – resolved inside of ten minutes.

If you find yourself having to place major organizations and groups into a location, ask yourself who would benefit from being near each other, and who would never, ever, ever be willing to be seen with another group. Place everyone accordingly (or jumble them to add a whole new level of tension to your world).

Worldbuilding Reflects the Real World

I’m not sure my goodreads account will corroborate this, but probably 75%-85% of everything I’ve read or watched over the course of my life has been classified as either fantasy or science fiction. As a result, I grew up with a magic wand and boxes turned into spaceships and futuristic race cars, and wishing for any number of mythological beasts as pets. I’d noticed that the characters did things I did, but I noticed more how they did it (in terms of props and objects) than thinking about what it meant.

When I was in high school, someone started complaining about how the off-duty outfits in Star Trek: The Next Generation resembled a type of resort-ware. I’m a symbologist by nature, so I’d been focused on the uniforms and everything that denoted Starfleet and the Federation…and the various alien races. I hadn’t thought about it. I’d gotten as far as thinking about the lack of currency (which wasn’t really. They used a credit system that was effectively invisible in the show.) after a history lesson on bartering and the development of a local economy. That was it.

It wasn’t until I started playing around with my (at the time) cyberpunk story setting that I really started thinking about the practicalities of creating a political unit, in my case a city. I came across this quote somewhere: A country without borders falls off the map. And I started thinking about geography classes I’d sat through, where the teachers kept making the point that natural markers were often the easiest way to mark off a new country’s territory. It’s why we so often see a mountain range, a river, a large body of water, or some other distinctive landform at an edge of a country or state.

It’s a brilliant way of claiming an unmistakable border…right up until weather and erosion get a hold of these borders and change them over years. The landform changes. The understood boundary changes. And the more it happens, the more it changes the edge of the country and all war breaks out while people on either side of the border try to decide how to handle this natural change. If you’re creating a country/kingdom, giving it a natural border is a great opening to exploring how the country/kingdom handles a neighborly conflict.

And while we’re on the topic of the effect of geographical features, most successful major cities started out as a small port on a river, lake, or sea. I’ll give you a minute to go scan a map. I certainly had to when someone told me that. More often than not, these ports develop on rivers or lakes that have rivers passing through. It makes sense. People need easy ways to move things around, and for a long time water was the fastest, most effective way to do it. So when you’re developing a city, it’s probably in your best interest to set it near a major source of water, even when it’s a city whose origins you haven’t thought through yet. (In my case, this particular lesson totally screwed up the city/region I’d been building for a few years. I suddenly had to figure out how my beautiful city on the plains could get a hold of some water. I still haven’t resolved it to my satisfaction.)

This is just covering the geographical and political components of worldbuilding, but it does affect the biological (animals and plants) aspect of creating your world, too. If you guys remind me, I’ll try to address that in a future post because understanding that is actually how I landed a freelance game writing gig earlier this year.

Founding a City

(Full Disclosure: I’m currently listening to Brandon Sanderson’s worldbuilding lecture from his creative writing course at BYU.)

About six years ago, I stumbled across a writing contest (that turned out to be really bad for being attached to a notable writing convention). The prompt inspired me to want to create a story for a Cyberpunk 2020 media I’d created (but never played) for a friend’s campaign a few years before that. I was so excited. I was finally going to try writing a gritty world. So I pulled out my trusty Percolator and started combing through it for my notes related to the character and her world.

And I got side-tracked. By a bunch of other, interesting notes. That completely changed my intended story. (This is one of the perks of creating a Swipe File.)

I started exploring a combination of notes, dialogue, and ideas, eventually pulling together a story about a reformed assassin. The story built around the Megacorps who effectively ran the city (a note I’d been sitting on for years), and a personal security device (that had been stuck in my head after watching a bad made-for-television sci-fi movie) that was part of the story’s big reveal. I named this cyberpunk-inspired city New Glory to reflect its awesomeness. And the resulting short story didn’t even get looked at, simply because the judges decided not to look at all the entries. (The organizer effectively told me to get over myself when I asked why.)

New Glory was forgotten shortly thereafter because I was dragged back into writing fan fiction. But then I wanted to explore a whole new set of ideas I’d linked together in the Percolator, and a NaNoWriMo project was born. Suddenly, New Glory wasn’t a cyberpunk city. It was a futuristic city…with a traditional monastery to its east. Which was then joined by other monasteries.

Yeah, it became confusing, and a lot more convoluted. I had to take another break from New Glory before I imploded it under the weight of its no-longer-appropriate name.

Now, I’m revisiting New Glory, and I’m realizing there were some good ideas present. And I’m rebuilding it with an eye toward the kinds of stories I know I want to tell in this city. It’s amazing how much cleaner the reconstruction is going, still informed by appropriate ideas from the Percolator.