Tuesday, 19 November 2013

How to Build A World - Lucy Coats

Before I talk about world-building, I'd like to remind you all about the AUTHORS FOR THE PHILIPPINES auction, which is in full swing at the moment, raising much-needed funds for the Red Cross to aid the people of the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan. There are some truly amazing 'money can't usually buy' lots to bid on, so please don't miss out!  The bidding ends at 8pm on Weds 20th November, so you haven't got long.  I've got signed, doodled and dedicated books, and also a school visit on offer, but those are just two of 468 fantastic lots, including books signed by Philip Pullman and Neil Gaiman, and the chance of being a character in Patrick Ness's next book, or having a dedication in the 25th Anniversary Edition of Amazing Grace, or in the next Young James Bond novel. The list goes on, and there really is something for everyone - DO go and browse (just click on the links in red!). 

Now, onto that world-building I promised you....

World-building is a key skill for any writer. Whatever genre you write in, giving your readers a vibrant sense of place - creating the feeling that they can step into the pages of your books and find somewhere which actually works as a three-dimensional landscape - is as necessary as writing strong and believable characters.  Our own world is a useful template to use, because we all know how it works, but how does a fantasy writer go about creating a brand-new world with its own history, culture and politics?

A week or so ago, I was at the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, and was privileged to hear a panel of bestselling fantasy authors talk about this, sharing tips and tricks as to how they do it.  What surprised me was how differently they all approached the matter of world-building.

Patrick Rothfuss expends a great deal of time and effort on getting the world of his Kingkiller Chronicle absolutely right. He maintains that a large helping of geekery is important for this - and he suggests going to an enthusiast for information, not a professional, because those are the people who have a true passion for their subject.  Patrick's own geekery concerns trade systems and how they work - as well as currencies, about which he knows at least 98% more than he ever puts in his books. He considers successful world-builders to be obsessive train-set designers who "plunge into the deep rabbit hole of madness" and get every detail right, rather than set-designers, who merely paint a flat wooden surface to create an illusion rather than a 3D object.

He also says that there is a danger to be found in assuming that all readers will know and have an implicit understanding of the culture the writer comes from.  For instance, if an alien read certain books from the past (and even from the present day), and focussed its attention what on swearing and curse words actually highlight, it might assume that "women are dirty, sex is bad".  He maintains that how people curse shows what people see as taboo - it is a window into the cultural assumptions and beliefs which most of us simply don't examine too closely.  Therefore, making up a credible 'cursing vocabulary', for your world can ground it and give it a feeling of reality, as well as being a shortcut to that world's cultural beliefs and taboos.

Robin Hobb has a different take. She spends a lot of time with her characters within her 'writing unconscious', and finds that as the person shows who they are (who their family is, the places where they live and work), everything else seems to fall into place, because then she starts asking them: "Who's your government, what's your religion." Once those questions are answered, she knows what sort of world they fit into.  She admits to being a biology geek who asks questions such as: "what happens when a red rose and a white grow side by side?" and extrapolates from that exchanges of DNA and biologically-based magic.  She says that what is important is not what you don't know, but what you don't know you don't know.  Just because you've seen something 100 times on TV - a version of history, an Arthurian story or whatever - it doesn't mean it's actually true.  Always go back to original sources.

Adrian Tchaikovsky keeps it simple. For setting and place, he asks: "What if there was..." Everything in his world grows organically from that, and then, once he has that, he says: "This is the world - now who lives in it?" He feels there is "no reason we have to be chained to history or to our perception of history."

Hal Duncan is the definition of a true 'pantser. Together with finding a voice and a perspective, creating a setting is, for him, an ongoing process of discovery. He doesn't care if it's right "as long as it sounds good."

Ellen Kushner, who moderated the panel, maintains that she doesn't know anything about her world except what her character sees or knows - she finds writing an immersive and integral experience, and considers it "all smoke and mirrors".  She says that her job is to make her readers believe, and let them create a lot of the landscape in their own heads.

I'd be very interested to hear what other writers think of all this.  Does one of these 'methods' strike a chord with you?  Is there something here you hadn't thought of, but would like to try out?  Personally, I'm going to look out for an enthusiast on trading in Ancient Egypt, because that's what I need at the moment, and think about the uses of swearing. I'm also going to confess to being a mythology geek.  How about you?

Lucy's new picture book, Bear's Best Friend, is published by Bloomsbury "A charming story about the magic of friendship which may bring a tear to your eye" Parents in Touch "The language is a joy…thoughtful and enjoyable" Armadillo Magazine. "Coats's ebullient, sympathetic story is perfectly matched by Sarah Dyer's warm and witty illustrations." The Times   
Her latest series for 7-9s, Greek Beasts and Heroes is out now from Orion Children's Books. 
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Lucy is represented by Sophie Hicks at Ed Victor Ltd

1 comment:

Emma Barnes said...

I really enjoyed this, Lucy - I missed this particular session at World Fantasy Con and so it was great to read such a full account.

I find Patrick Rofhfuss's comments interesting - it makes sense to me that if you care a lot, and have a very detailed knowledge of, one aspect of your world, that's going to add a richness and a reality to all of it. With Tolkien, for example, it's the languages...they add a depth which makes Middle Earth seem real and its less convincing aspects (its economy, for one!) insignificant. Mind you, I don't think anyone curses in Middle Earth, do they? Maybe that's significant in itself.