Tips on World Building

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A diorama my son made in sixth grade.

I took a class taught by Aprilynne Pike on world building back in February at the ANWA conference. I was asked to give a lesson on world building for my writing group, and I thought I’d adapt  a few things I’ve come up with into a blog post.

 

First of all: a synonym to “world building” is “setting.” All books have a setting. It is, in fact, one of the most basic elements in a story.

I remember reading a piece by someone in my writing group, long ago, soon after I joined. It was just a short chapter, but it was brilliant. The only thing I recall at this point is a quirky little town parade and something about a stuffed goat on wheels. (That’s right. On wheels.) As we discussed her piece in the chapter meeting, the writer said something that has stuck with me, lo, these many years. She said, in effect, “What I am trying to do in this story is make the setting another character.”

I was fairly new to writing at this point, and that statement struck me as genius. I hadn’t ever heard that before—I hadn’t even considered it before. The setting as a character?! A whole galaxy of possibilities opened up.

So I feel like setting is the first level, but when you take it to the next level,  it puts you into world-building territory. (Although I did have a friend point out—you can change setting and still be in the same world. True.) And when you’ve built an amazing world to go along with your amazing story, that’s when your book will truly resonate and be memorable.

In Aprilynne Pike’s class, she talked about her Wings series and how she has pages and pages of information just about the land of faerie—most of it not in the book. She had a whole history of the land, along with a monetary/bartering system, maps, and rules that govern the way the magic works. Even though all that information wasn’t part of the story, she attested it gave her work a depth, a realness, that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.

She gave a couple of examples of other works during her class, where she read only small excerpts. Even though they were short, they still showed the type of world and set up how the setting became a character. Her first example was from Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth. Within the first few pages the world she has built is definitely a character in the story—a main character, from the looks of it.

Another example she used was from The Giver by Lois Lowry. When I think of dystopian lit, it seems there are two types of worlds: ones where everything is in the hands of a controlling government and things are very, very bad (like The Hunger Games or 1984) and ones where everything is in the hands of a controlling government and things seem all right at first (Matched or The Alliance). I think The Giver falls into the latter category.

Compared to a lot of other dystopian lit out there, The Giver starts out tamely. The world is a happy place and people are privileged to live there. And yet, there’s still this underlying wrongness about it. I started reading The Giver to my girls at the beginning of the summer, and when we got to the part where people were only allowed to raise two children (not their own), and the birth mothers were on the very bottom rung of society (after their “birthing years” were through, they were put in menial, hard labor jobs for the rest of their lives), my 9-year-old was completely horrified. So even though the language was “happy” and the people were “content” and the mother explains this to her daughter in a very matter-of-fact “this is the way it’s always been” way, Lois Lowry was able to strike these chords without really saying anything at all. There’s nothing overt in the book that says, “This is a crazy way to live.” She’s made the setting—the world—say that by simply being.

World-building does not come naturally to me. For this reason, I know I’m going to have to save an entire edit when my book is finished to simply go through and add in those details that add authenticity, the ring of truth, and that extra dimension of entering a whole new world. (Don’t you dare close your eyes!)

Key Points:

  • Make your setting another character in your story.
  • Use surprising details to pull the reader in—sight, smell, taste, touch, sound—and ensure the setting has a history as well as a future.
  • Let it affect the mood and tone of the story you’re telling.
  • Most of all: don’t forget to use it. Building a fascinating world where people want to go and see what goes on there is worth the extra time it will take you, as the writer, to weave into your book. Liz Adair has said, “I write cheap vacations.” So take your readers somewhere!

 

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A Chat with Scotland

Once upon a time, starting about a year ago, my best friend was going to move to Utah at the end of August this year.

Through a series of events that began in May and crammed themselves into about six weeks, she and her husband had received a job opportunity for their family in Scotland, decided they were going, sold their house, and left western Washington for a life across the pond.

I miss her like crazy, but am excited for this chance to hear all about her adventures. And what better way to convince myself that a visit to the UK is essential–and soon–than to have my best friend move there? (No offense, Utah, but I don’t think I could have found enough material to fill a blog series about you.)

Without further ado, I happily introduce the beautiful Tami (one of my very favorite people) as the star of “Scotland Chats!”

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(Here she is with her two youngest children, just chilling while exploring castle ruins. Because that’s what they do for fun in Scotland.)

Wendy: Okay. Is Scotland what you expected? What did you expect?

Tami: Yes it’s what I expected so far, except the weather. It’s been the hottest summer in years and that’s been a bonus. Seeing that “hot” here is in the high 70’s. (Make that the mid 20’s). I did expect it to be green and beautiful. The landscape is amazing, the hills that are gently laid out in green with sheep and cattle. (Haven’t been to the highlands yet). The people are friendly and helpful. I do think they are more reserved than Americans, first off, but when I am friendly and relaxed so are they.

They are definitely more reserved in public and when our family goes somewhere and is loud, we get noticed. That is partially the accent though, our accent. I notice myself talking more quietly to see if that decreases the attention. That said, downtown Aberdeen is full of sassy drunk people late in the evening on a weekend.

Wendy: So you fit right in . . . 😉 Is the conversion confusing? Or did you live with that in Canada? How about from miles to kilometers?

Tami: Haha! As to conversions, I don’t get Celsius, I never have. Even the 4 years in Canada I still had to convert it to F for myself to feel satisfied. It is in miles here so no conversion there.

Wendy: Oh, nice! Are the speed limits posted in mph, then?

Tami: Yes, the speed limits are MPH. Except, the gas in is litres, which I am quick to convert. To figure gas mileage uses a calculator because you fill it in litres, convert it to gallons and then get the MPG.

Wendy: Phew. That’s a lot of work. How much does gas cost per litre?

Tami: About 138.9 pence per litre. Which you multiply by 3.86 to get the price per gallon. About $5.36 per gallon. Of course that is without the pound to dollar factor. Which I don’t think about as much since we are paid in pounds.

Wendy: So, basically, I should stop complaining? I think I paid $3.89 a gallon today.

Tami: Haha! It is much more expensive in Europe in general.

Wendy: Where does the factor “3.86” come from? Is it 3.86 litres in a gallon or something?

Tami: Yes, it is. That I memorized from my Canadian days.

Wendy: You were specially equipped for the transition to UK life.

Tami: A bit yes! I think a big change will be schools, and helping my boys adjust. They are going to have more of a culture shock than the rest of us.

Wendy: True. It’s going to be a whole different ball game. We’ll have to chat again once they’ve been in school a bit and see the differences.

Tami: What does surprise me is how hard it is to understand people. They speak quickly and since I don’t look so touristy they think I understand them. There are those with really thick accents and I just smile and stare with a blank expression. They usually laugh and try to talk slower.

Wendy: Awesome! Hahaha! That was actually my next question: are the accents SO incredible? There is such a musical quality to a Scottish accent, but I can see where not understanding could be a bit of a drag.

Tami: YES!! It’s like living in a dreamland! We all love that, and talk with each other about what things they say differently and who we can understand and who we can’t.

[Editor’s note: check out the sidebar on Tami’s blog to find which American phrases are passé and the way a person should say them in Scotland–although I see “Munch and Mingle” is missing, which has been my favorite Scottish phrase so far. Maybe it’s not on the list because there’s no American equivalent?]

Wendy: I think I would walk around with a sappy smile while listening to everyone’s conversations.

Tami: Hahaha!!! It’s hard not to. 🙂

Wendy: 🙂 Do people want to hear you talk? Is an American accent something they like to hear, or do they get it enough from Hollywood that it doesn’t matter?

Tami: I haven’t had anyone say, Oh! I love your accent. Don’t know if they just hear it enough or if they think that’s forward, or they don’t even care.

Oh, and men dress nicely here. Women are about the same or better. But men dress in slacks and button ups and have nicely cut hair, on average. Now, the younger crowd are still teens and somewhat sloppy, but not YA age and up.

Wendy: Hmm. Intriguing. That visit to Scotland is looking better and better. 😉

Tami: I know!!!

Wendy: Have you asked anyone to speak in an American accent for you?

Tami: No! I haven’t thought of that. I will need to try. There is a “Scottish” language that locals speak (I remember my dad telling me about it). I’ll have to look up the name. I have asked people I’ve met to say something in that.

Wendy: Cool! Is it like Celtic or Welsh or something? (Hm. I probably just offended the entire citizenships of Wales and Scotland by saying that . . . sorry, friends! I know you’re different countries!)

Tami: I’ll find out the name and redeem you!
***
Now that, folks, is a real friend. I’m hoping to have chats with Tami regarding the mysteries of living in Scotland on a regular basis. Any questions you want to ask a real-live American living in Scotland can go in the comments, and I’ll do my best to fit it in.
Check out Tami’s blog for more Scotland adventures and gorgeous photos. (Not many UK citizens think to post pictures of the everyday stuff, so it’s like an Anglophile’s dream come true!)

Making it Stick

My writing is going through a rough patch lately. I’m not sure what it is, exactly, I only know that I’m having a hard time getting anything to stick. The words, they slip through my brain and out of my mind without stopping to greet the paper.

When I was a kid, we would go up to the mountains to a place called West Piney for family reunions. You’re probably thinking, “Piney? That sounds like a made-up word.” Well, it just might be. Still, that’s what we called it. But when we thought about it, we didn’t think of it as “West Piney.” We thought of if as “that place with the gigantic slide.”

Now, there’s gigantic and there’s gigantic. I don’t know if you can fully appreciate this slide without seeing it in person, and seeing it in person when you are under four feet tall is even better. The lodge was built on the side of a mountain, overlooking a small valley and creek below, and then the mountain grew back up out of the opposite creek bed. To get down the mountain you could take the 40-some-odd steps . . . or you could take the slide.

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Thanks to the magic of the Internet, here’s a picture.

So, when we’d be there for our family reunions, my brothers and cousins and I would do the regular camping-type activities like hiking, wading in the creek, and performing corny skits around the fireplace, but we’d also raid the kitchen for wax paper or used chip bags. The slide is made out of metal. In the July sun, that baby would heat up enough to blister. We’d take the wax paper or chip bag (opened up with the greasy side down, of course) and sit on them at the top of the slide. The slide has high sides, so it was almost like going down a chute. There we’d perch, the drop off looking impossibly steep, with the end yawning into a pile of cedar shavings.

Once we shoved off, the only way to slow down was by pushing our feet into the sides. But, heck–who wanted to slow down?

We’d zip down the mountainside, the wind whipping our hair behind us, feeling as though we were flying. And then we were flying–right off the end, for only a fraction of a second, but it was you, in the air, free as a bird with a chip bag stuck to its bum.

Then we landed, of course, which wasn’t always the best part of the ride. Just ask my Aunt Barbara, who happened to sort of break her ankle at the bottom.

Sometimes when I’m writing I have these thoughts, these bursts of brilliance. It’s more than my normal writing self: it’s adding a greasy chip bag under my tush at the top and flying, flying, flying, sometimes with the slide underneath and supporting me and sometimes completely on my own.

And then I land.

I lose the flight.

I haven’t caught it. It’s over. It’s done.

It didn’t stick.

Apparently more people than Aunt Barbara were injured on the slide, because they extended the bottom in later years. Instead of flying off the end, we rode flat for longer periods to ease some of that momentum. The only problem was when you didn’t even make it to the end in your initial ride. Then you had to scoot along on your bottom to be able to jump off the end.

Awkward.

In my writing I’m working on finding that perfect balance where I can go fast and fun and free but slow down enough to not injure myself. Not too slow, because no one wants to have to push themselves to the edge. The perfect end is where you come to a stop just before stepping off all together. Although it could be argued an even more perfect end is where you don’t stop at all and the momentum carries you through to the last sentence, where you hop off lightly, turn to look back at what you just conquered, and sigh in satisfaction.

The funny thing about this post is that I wrote it a couple of years ago–and it’s still true. Apparently, I am wont to struggle with getting into a routine of writing. Some weeks it’s great, and others it’s more non-existent. But I continue to try, continue to reach for that perfect end.

Also, check back in a few days for my first (of what I hope will be a great many) Scotland Chat.

A Lady and a Spy by Ranee` S. Clark

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Guess what? It’s time for my very first author interview on this website! I’m excited to welcome Ranee` S. Clark to my blog today, who has just released a charming historical novella, A Lady and a Spy.

Here’s a bit about it: Blanche Audley’s old-fashioned grandfather cut off her mother after she married Thomas Audley and his millions of “new money,” and for the last ten years since her parents’ deaths, Blanche has lived under the gloom of his disappointment. So when she recklessly loses a thousand dollars to Etta Channing in a game of baccarat, she will do anything to keep her foolish actions from him. Except he oversees every penny she spends of the wealth her father left her, leaving her no way of paying the debt without his knowledge.

Until Etta offers her a deal. Alexander Whealdon, one of the most eligible bachelors in town, needs a companion to shepherd his younger sister through her first season. Etta wants Blanche to take the position and use it to infiltrate the household and pass along information that will help Etta get her hooks into the reserved Mr. Whealdon. It seems like an easy way to pay off the debt and save face at the same time. But the more Blanche sees of Mr. Whealdon’s playful side, not to mention his surprising generosity, the less she wants to help Etta win him over.

Backing out means humiliating herself and disappointing both her grandfather and Mr. Whealdon, not to mention losing Miss Whealdon’s trust and friendship, but if she goes through with her promise to Etta, she will lose what might be her last chance for love.

I asked Ranee` a few questions about this book in particular and her writing process in general.

Wendy: Welcome, Ranee`! I’m so happy to have you here today. Okay. Here’s my first question: do you know how to play Baccarat?

Ranee`: Hahahaha. Not at all. I researched the basics, but when I did the research, I concentrated mostly on its believability as a part of the story; its believability as something Blanche would have played.

Wendy: What types of books did you read or films did you watch as research?

Ranee`: My biggest research help was “Seasons of Splendor” by Greg King. It’s a great, great book on the Gilded Age. The other books I concentrated on were manners and social books published in the time period and even cook books.

Wendy: Interesting! What made you decide to set your book in New York in 1894?

Ranee`: My last novella (“A Contemptible Affection”) was set in Regency England, which I love, but I also adore the fashion of the Gilded Age in New York. I read “The Luxe” series by Anna Godberson a few years ago, and although those books aren’t my favorite, it made me love the time period.

Wendy: Hm. I haven’t read that series, but maybe I will check it out. As a follow-up question: I read “A Contemptible Affection” and am writing a Regency myself right now. They are both such different eras, but there are also many similarities. What’s the same and what’s different about a Season in Regency England and a Season in New York just before the turn of the century?

Ranee`: So many of my differences came more in attitude differences between Americans and the British. The Americans at that time were more lax about chaperoning duties (which came up a lot in A LADY AND A SPY). At the same time though, the Victorian Era was a bit more uptight than the Regency Era. The middle class had begun to play a bigger role in society, and they had a more prudish outlook than the upper class–which had held all the power during the Regency era.

Wendy: Interesting. I don’t know much about the Gilded Age, but I *do* love Art Deco! Hahaha–is it too early for that?

Ranee`: Hmmm. I’m not sure. Blanche’s grandfather’s house is Rococo revival, if I remember right, which was popular in the mid-century. He’s sort of living in those glory days of the Knickerbockers, those old families that settled Manhattan.
For the Whealdon household, I was inspired by this blog post. So it was a mix of Renaissance and other things…just very opulent, which shows the excess of the upper class in New York during that time period.

Wendy: Ooh, cool. That house is amazing. Switching gears a bit now, how many kids do you have? How are you able to balance being a mother and being a writer?

Ranee`: It’s so hilarious that you should ask about being a mom! I’ve just been trying to bounce my youngest (7 months) on my knee while I typed, and finally had to hand him off.

Wendy: Typing one-handed definitely slows down the process . . .

Ranee`: Yes! Although I’ve gotten really good at it. I have three little boys–7 1/2 and 5 years, and 7 months.

Wendy: Lovely! Boys are so fun. I have two of them, myself.

Ranee`: Before the baby was born, I used to write almost exclusively at nap time. My middle one takes really great naps (still!) so I would have 3 or almost 4 hours of quiet writing time. Squishy, my 7-month-old, doesn’t allow that. Almost all my editing and writing for the last few months, especially the intense editing I’ve been doing on THE GAME PLAN in preparation for submitting it soon, has been done at night. My husband and I put them to bed around 7-7:30, then we hang out for a while and when he goes to bed at 9, I stay up and write/edit.

The change has been hard. I even had to give up a great editing job I loved, but I do what I can to develop my skill and get things done. This fall both my oldest will be in school, so hopefully I’ll get more day writing in.

My biggest help is my husband’s support. He’s always willing to take the kids and let me have time if I need it. He’s awesome.

Wendy: Hooray for supportive husbands! What’s the difference in writing when writing a novella vs. a novel?

Ranee`: Novellas are SO much easier to step back and see the whole picture. The planning is easier. The revising is easier. It’s easier to see where I’m on pace and what is sluggish.
Writing a novel is just more intense, lots more little things to think about, sub-plots, etc. Novellas are fun for me. Novels still are, to an extent, but novellas are like a stress reliever. So is researching for them. I love my historical novellas and the fun things I learn.

Wendy: Well, I’ve loved reading them both.

Ranee`: Thank you so much. That’s just the best thing to hear.

Wendy: Is there a tradition or custom that happened during your book’s time that you’d want to bring back today?

Ranee`: Dancing. Balls. I love to dance. I love to get dressed up and be pretty when I have the chance. I think that it would be awesome to attend a ball or two.

Wendy: I agree! Who can we petition to get that put back into society today? Okay, one last question. Do you keep a journal, and if so, how has it effected your writing?

Ranee`: I don’t keep a journal. (Gasp!) I actually do digital scrapbooking and that’s how I keep track of things going on in our family, so not a lot of journaling.

Wendy: Thanks so much for talking with me today, Ranee`!

Ranee`: Thank you for the opportunity to talk about my stuff. So fun!

Wendy: You’re welcome. It was delightful!

Ranee`: It was!

For a chance to win A Lady and a Spy (and who doesn’t love free books?) visit Ranee` at her blog here.

IMG_0001bRanee` and her personal superhero, her husband, live in Wyoming where they are raising three future super-villains. When she’s not breaking up impromptu UFC fights in her living room or losing to one of her sons at Uno, she loves to read and write. She has a bachelor’s degree in history that is probably useless, but she had a lot of fun earning it. She blogs about writing, reading, and editing at http://raneesclark.blogspot.com.

 

Follow Ranee`:  Twitter * Blog * Amazon * Goodreads

Buy A Lady and a Spy: Amazon * Smashwords

The Itchy-Ache

Writing-wise, the past few months haven’t been as consistent as I’d like.

I can blame it on a lot of things–kid issues, my friend learning she’s moving to Scotland and helping her get her house on the market and sold, personal drama–but even though all those things are real and relevant, I still miss it.

I can tell I haven’t been writing. I can almost feel it, the words bubbling around in my fingertips, jostling for elbow room in my brain. I need to let them out, let them spill on the page.

But I can’t.

My insides are all confused.

There’s too much I’m trying to keep track of and I get distracted too easily. I feel like there’s no time.

That’s both true and false.

There’s no large block of time, true. But there are little splices of time. I need to be taking advantage of them.

Jotting down some words and some thoughts–even when they aren’t polished or deep into the character–is better than having a simmering brain.

 

And no words on the page.

Two Recommendations

I think I’ll key a new saying: “When the writing’s good, the blogging’s bad.”

So, if this blog is any indication, the past couple of weeks have been great writing-wise. (And that is correct.) However, I’ve struggled to get any of my started-and-abandoned blog posts to click.

I’m just going to give a couple of recommendations instead.

First, a movie:

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I already raved about this on Facebook, but it is seriously one of the funniest and best-written rom coms I’ve seen in a long time. Beyond that, it’s set in Scotland [digression: I just found out my best friend is moving to Scotland, which is devastating because I’ll miss her so much, but also awesome because I can start saving for a trip where I’ll have a personal guide]. I’m a bit crazy about Scotland (and many other British-y things), so it was fun seeing all the gorgeous footage of the island of Hegg. Listening to Kelly MacDonald’s delicious accent and looking at David Tennant’s delicious face aren’t hardships, either. Let’s face it: you can’t go wrong with a cow-haunted toilet and lines like, “I’ll just leave it blank for eBay.” (Currently available on Netflix, where I just watched part of it [again] when I should have been packing for a Spring Break! trip with my kids.)

Second, a book:

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On said Spring Break! trip, we had lots of miles to cover in our trusty Kia minivan. I picked up Fake Mustache, or How Jody O’Rodeo and her Wonder Horse (and Some Nerdy Kid) saved the U.S. Presidential Election from a Mad Genius Criminal Mastermind by Tom Angleberger (of Origami Yoda fame) from the library. It had my three older kids (ages 12, 10, and 9) and I laughing out loud more than once. One of the things I love best about middle grade fiction is its fantastical nature–the kids it’s aimed at are more than willing to suspend their disbelief and enjoy a completely unbelievable story. And as I have a soft spot in my heart for faux facial hair, this book is a clear winner.

What about you? Read or seen any winners lately? I’ve been making my way through the Whitney Awards finalists; there are definitely some winners there. When the writing gets bad, maybe I’ll write a review or two about some of them.

Does Salary Show What We Value?

Surveys talking about salary always intrigue me. I’m not quite sure why, although it possibly stems from my father. He used to cut out graphs that showed the average earnings of people with a high school diploma, an associate’s degree, an undergraduate degree, and a master’s or other professional degree. I’m sure he did this to make us value education.

It worked! My brothers and I are all college graduates. (But I will tell you a little secret: that might actually have more to do with my mom, who made sure we had the opportunity to work during potato harvest. There’s nothing like long hours standing on a combine or in front of a conveyor belt looking for vines and dirt clods among the thousands of potatoes sweeping by to make you desire a nice, cushy desk job.)

Anyway, for today’s Survey Says, I thought this was an interesting comparison.

On the one hand, we have average annual public school teacher salaries, which have increased almost $12,000 over the last ten years. Not bad, school teachers. $56k is a fairly decent salary.

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Howsoever, when we look at the Highest NBA player salaries for 2012-13, we see that Kobe Bryant earns $27,849,149.

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Is it just me, or is something seriously wrong with this picture? School teachers–who educate our children, the future of our country–make only 0.2% of what an NBA star does. And, granted, these are the highest-paid NBA players . . . but still. The disparity is too much.

I could get on my soap box about this, and point out some of the excesses in society and the upside-downness of what we’re willing to pay for, but I don’t think there’s any need. These numbers speak for themselves.