One of the oft-repeated pieces of advice for aspiring writers is “write what you know”. There have been multiple arguments about quite what that means. Does it mean you can’t write about life on a farm if you’re only ever lived in a city apartment? Does it mean you can’t write about spycraft if you aren’t trained for it? Does it mean a white middle-aged man can’t write from a black girl’s perspective?
Writers are always doing research. Not just formal research – deep in the reference sections of large libraries, or down the back of specialised book stores, or finding and buying obscure works off the ‘net – but also informal research. Watching people around them. Listening to stories and paying attention to their own experiences.
I got threatened with assault on the train yesterday afternoon. I know I don’t have any combat training and I rather doubt the pimply adolescent with more arrogance than sense did either. It was an intense experience corralling my reactions under the wash of adrenaline. There is a reason it’s called the “fight-or-flight response” because that’s the two options your body presents. It is calling for basic animal reactions. It is a difficult time for rational thought. Without any sort of training in the arts of hand-to-hand fighting, it was all I could do to not physically attack back and to go for diversions instead.
What did I learn out of this? The immediate learning is that an untrained defender will not behave coherently. It is incredibly difficult to respond rather than react. This is why those who are expected to go into such a situation are trained so heavily. They need an instinctive response in that situation and that’s what training provides. Perfect information for writing a warrior in fiction. Especially one who is yet to undergo the necessary training.
I got out of this unharmed, of course. First step was to flee to the next carriage, then I called upon the train guard, who (to my considerable surprise) gave me a seat in his cabin to let me recover in a safe space. Because recovery is also needed from an intense adrenaline burst. This is also good information for writing. Once the emergency is over, your body pays the price: there is weariness, emotional vulnerability and in extreme cases even nausea as everything goes back to normal. I kind of suspect having a safe place and someone watching gives a reference point for ‘normal’ to aim for.
This is definitely not an experience I would normally want, let alone would want to repeat. And, sadly, it made me a bit more wary of which carriage I boarded on the journey home later that night. But I am aware of my own reactions enough to be able to learn from it. This is what makes me a writer.
Hard science fiction does not ever have to mean a light story peppered with dense, science-heavy prose. And this book shows you why.
The setting is an orbital, rotating space station a few hundred years in the future. It is one of several mining the orbital debris around one of our gas giants. A lot of the population is a type of artificial human called a “construct”, but there is also a hefty proportion of real humans – and this is the first interesting part: they are Indonesian.
I have a wonderful starting scene that sets up a lot of promise, especially what my hero thinks about a few key things. I have an outline of where I think I want to take him, mostly to challenge what he thinks about what I’d already revealed. And I have a few more scenes that start the journey.
Problem is, I’m having trouble making this work.
I find it difficult to write a story in patchwork. I prefer to start at the beginning and finish at the end. Not all my stories happen completely that way; there has been a short story where the last scene was written before I’d finished the third last. But mostly I don’t like to leave gaps as I write.
And that’s why I’m struggling. I need to get my characters past the city that they don’t belong in so that the rest of the story can happen. But coming up with things other then deus ex machina is proving oddly difficult. I mean, the hero wants to go to this city, but he’s a farmboy and really has no realistic idea of what a city is like. His pregnant wife is following along, but she doesn’t want to go to a city. Besides, there is a supernatural reason she won’t survive in a city, too. Have I mentioned this is a fantasy adventure story?
I think I need to refresh my memory of my hero’s character. The opening chapter was written months ago, and I think he was a bit more feisty than I’ve portrayed later. I mean, he isn’t supposed to be the sort to follow along behind others: he does decisive, and I’ve robbed him of that. Ah. Yes, he needs to clash hard with the two mercenary friends he’s acquired because they know cities and he doesn’t.
And that’s not even taking into account the wider story where there are (so far!) at least three groups of people looking specifically for him. And he not only has no idea this is happening, but would have no clue as to even why. I have been calling him my hero for a good reason!
So I think he needs to be presented with the fact that staying in the city is the worst thing he can do. Now to actually put in my story why.
Thank you, Internet, for listening!
I’ve decided to start a series about world-building. It isn’t going to be comprehensive, but it should be interesting.
World-building is the work a writer does to create any part of writing that isn’t the characters and isn’t a real place. Fantasy and science-fiction authors are known for world-building because most people think of building a whole new world. But there is a lot of world-building at smaller scales, too. Even if you invent a flat in the city you live in to set your story in, you will still be world-building. It’s just that the world you build will be the flat the story is set in.
I’m not aiming to create a course to cover the full extent of world-building. No, I’m going to pick things that I find interesting, either in stories I’ve written or settings I’ve created, and talk about the problems and delights I discovered along the way.
I’m also going to note when world-building is a bit more visible than normal in other stories. Sometimes world-building that goes awry is amusing when you notice it. I mean, not all readers do, after all. Sometimes it goes spectacularly awry, destroying the suspension of disbelief needed to enjoy the story. That’s when you see reviewers going “but it doesn’t work that way!” But I also want to celebrate when it works well, and when it works very well.
When I see the term “world-building“, I usually think in the grand scale. And by that I mean maps depicting countryside hundreds if not thousands of miles across, vast mountain chains, entire river systems, cities, broad cultural swathes, and on and on. I expect most people probably think of it at that sort of level.
I’ve been world-building since high school, perhaps even before that. It would usually start with a map, generally a coastal map. In sharp pencil. There was usually lots of rubbing out and re-drawing. Those that lasted a while generally acquired a corresponding computer file, describing cities, races, countries, even languages and history on the more complete ones.
And then I started writing stories in them.
One of the hazards of world-building is creating the society your story is set in. For stories set in the present day (or recnt past), a writer can copy the one around them. It has the advantage of already being in existence. But for a mediaval fantasy, this doesn’t work so well. Especially if it closer to a historial work. And I apologise in advance for a heavy topic. I’ll try to tread lightly.
What passes for today’s current “western” secular society is basically no older than the end of the Industrial Revolution. It was during the latter that family and social structures were upended and redefined. Before the Industrial Revolution, working-class people tended to take up the trade of their father or some other close male. They lived their trade, grew up into it and helped the next generation do the same. The Industrial Revolution changed this. Now working fathers would travel to “work” (often in a mine or factory) and their children no longer got to grow up watching their father work. It broke the transition of child into adult.