Creating Magical Worlds
Reading can transport us to new and wonderful places, some of them literally magical. We ask authors how they build the worlds in their novels and what they consider most important.
Aliette de Bodard: Small and Large Elements
I'm very much a "world first" writer. I just cannot imagine my characters living their lives against a blank canvas—because the kind of world that they live in conditions so much the kind of thoughts that they will have, the kind of things that they will value, the kind of avenues that will be open to them.
I do obsessive world-building: when I started writing on my book In the Vanishers' Palace, a dark sapphic retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in a twisted fairy tale version of medieval Vietnam, I piled up books on Vietnamese myths and history, the artwork of Escher—which I wanted to use for the main setting of the book, a palace in the spirits' world—the basics of medicine... Gradually, I put together the universe: one in which an elder race had pillaged and damaged the earth before leaving, and where everyone, dragons and spirits alike, were trying to survive in the polluted ruins of a broken world. The setting itself was fairly familiar to me as I went for a timeless and somewhat idealized version of the world, where impoverished scholars struggled to support their aging mothers and dragons walked the earth.
The hard thing was working out the details.
For me, world-building expresses itself not only in large-scale events, but in a myriad of small touches, from the gestures people use with each other to the kinds of meals they have and how they take them. In creating that sense of another world, I've found details to be crucial. One particular scene had a character see warm, unfiltered sunlight and having a powerful feeling of reassurance—I realised the reason it felt utterly wrong to me was that anyone who'd grown up under a pall of perpetual polluted clouds would not have found pure sunlight reassuring, but rather sharp and unpleasant! Similarly, the tea that everyone drinks is mouldy with a strong taste, because the art of delicately steaming them died out where there was no clean water for this task.
One of the most telling small details, and the one I find the hardest, is finding the proper names for things. Names carry a wealth of information in a very compact manner, but they have to be the right ones. I don't mean characters' names necessarily—though these are important, too—but the names for concepts.
A key one was what to call the race that had broken the earth and subsequently left. I wanted something short and evocative, to do with leaving or disappearing, and that hopefully wouldn't cross too many wires with existing things. Which meant the simplest solutions like "disappeared" were out, due to its associations with forced disappearances in dictatorships. I brainstormed several other solutions: words to do with "leave" tended to be strongly associated with cowardice, which wouldn't fit the aura of terror that would still hang around those beings long after they'd left. Finally I settled on "Vanishers": because it's uncommon, it's not as heavily connotative as my other options were, and it also conveys that act of suddenly going away. Another concept I also came up with where "isolation skins"—bio-hazard suits being too technical, and giving the impression of something rather cumbersome, as opposed to my "skins", which could be easily folded and carried!
Not all of this was in the first draft. The names were, because I find it hard to do serious work until I have this at least penciled in, but some of the rest got added in successive layers during revision. The palace of the title, with its dizzying rooms where geometry got radically reconfigured, got gradually designed (it gained a magical library at the last minute!), just as the interactions between my characters got refined: my Beast analogue Vu Côn, an immortal dragon, found uncontaminated food comforting, but the Beauty character, an impoverished scholar who has only knew the broken and polluted world, thought it too sharp and unsettling (leading to a "flirting using food" scene rife with misunderstanding).
All of this adds up to—I hope—a universe which feels lived-in with a texture all of its own, and also one that, while it has pride of place in the story, doesn't end up taking it over, so that the characters themselves can be the focus of a dark and magical tale.
Aliette de Bodard's f/f retelling of Beauty and the Beast, In the Vanisher's Palace, is available for pre-order now. For more information about her and her writing, check out her website and follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
Aleksandr Voinov: Winging It... Or Not
When it comes to world-building, I’m literally in two minds. Or rather, the Muse is. Every sci-fi or fantasy story I’ve ever written has been all about hurling myself off a cliff and building my wings on the way down, hoping that the landing will be graceful enough the readers won’t notice. It helps that for my characters, the world is a “given” and they don’t explain much. Meanwhile, I hold the world only in my head—and hope nobody asks me for any further details, because often what’s on the page is the only stuff I know.
The disadvantage of course is that if I end up writing a sequel (or two, like in the case of the Scorpion fantasy novel and the Doctrine universe), I have to re-read everything that has come before to insert the new idea into the world as I’ve established. And thank the gods for self-publishing most of my books, because I will confess that I’ve gone back into an already published story and fixed the kind of detail most readers won’t notice but really needs to change to make it consistent with the current version of events in my head.
And while it works for me, it also means I have a wallet of highlighters ready as I re-read the stories that have come before, and every time I promise myself I’ll keep proper notes or even, like some of my friends, a proper wiki, and then…
… look, another cliff to hurl myself off.
And whatever mechanism kicks in when I write fantasy or sci-fi stops grinds to a maddening halt when I write historicals. With historicals, I go for full immersion in the period I’m writing about—I watch films, documentaries, YouTube films. A lot of stuff can be researched that way, for example how to put on a specific type of uniform—gods bless the re-enactors!—I buy a couple armfuls of books, read biographies, and autobiographies if available, diaries and letters of the time, and look at maps and guides until I feel I can move more or less freely in the setting and time I’m describing.
I’ve joked to friends that I could have written a PhD thesis on the German occupation of Paris instead of writing Nightingale, for example, and, to be honest, the PhD would have been less harrowing and probably wouldn’t have taken me seven years. I’m pretty sure I could hold my own on the topic within academia if challenged. That’s may also be the reason why I’ve largely stuck to the period around WWII because “acquiring” another period to that level of depth and understanding would easily consume my life the same way that Nightingale—and the other WWII books—have done.
That said, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever got regarding research—and most of all, getting stuck in research (or affectionately known as “hitting the wall”)—is to set the “five-minute rule”. If you need a specific fact or detail during the writing, set a timer for five minutes and hit Wikipedia and the internet, and if you can’t find it in five minutes, add a square bracket with “[detail]” and keep going. Usually during edits, there will be a time when you can pursue all these brackets more efficiently and without being distracted by keeping everything else in your head as well. Sometimes, I simply delete the [detail], because it turned out to be a whole lot less vitally important than I thought at the time. It’s a small trick, but it’s saved me a lot of grief.
Aleksandr's latest novel in the Doctrine universe is the rerelease of Dark Edge of Honor, co-written with Rhi Etzweiler, and is out now. For more information about him and his writing, check out his website and blog, and follow him on Instagram and Twitter.
Zuri Day: Recreating the '90's
One of the most fun and empowering acts as an author is the ability to create an entire world then set it between the pages of a novel. For me that experience was made even more exciting in that the world I built for the Decades: A Journey of African American Romance project was a recreation of my most transformative decade—the '90's! This series consists of twelve books, each set in one of twelve decades between 1900 and 2010, each story focusing on the romance between African American protagonists and embracing the African American experience within that decade.
What a topsy-turvy, cataclysmic series of events as we rolled into the information age. In keeping with the series’ design of love found within the backdrop of events that shaped the decade for African-Americans and the world, my novel’s love story is built around the shooting of hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur in 1996. My characters weren’t glued to their cellphones and when one was used, it was the cool new “clam” phone—as these novel, hinged devices were called until 1993 when the company that held the trademark on “flip phone” released it. Texting was in its infancy. Pagers ruled before being overshadowed by the Blackberry. The first smart phone arrived, its keyboard hidden within the receiver, the device large enough to lift as a weight. Of course my protag hero Marcus owned one. There was no sign of MP3's or USB's. When people in this world listened to music it was from a compact disc or as often, from a cassette tape!
The era was as innovative as it was devasting. Locations in the novel swing between Las Vegas, NV, where Tupac was shot to Los Angeles, where Marcus and heroine Traci reside. The city was still healing from the LA Riots of ’92, when the officers filmed beating an unarmed motorist named Rodney King were acquitted of all charges. For Marcus and Traci, those memory were vivid, as was the Bronco speed -chase three years later starring O.J. Simpson and the LAPD.
The guys wore starter jackets and overalls, inspired by LL Cool J and the Fresh Prince. The girls wore stirrup pants, skorts (remember?!?!) and rocked scrunchies and jelly sandals in every color. On their first official date my couple attended a blow-out concert featuring some of that era’s R&B/hip-hop favorites including The Fugees, TLC, En Vogue, New Edition, Blackstreet, Aliyah and Babyface. On television Marcus watched Martin, The Wayans Brothers and New York Undercover while Traci preferred Living Single, Sister, Sister and Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper. For all of their differences, the undeniable attraction between this couple was magic. She was the Whitney Houston to his Bobby Brown.
Hip-hop music took its rightful place in history and proved that it was more than a fad. A rap group called N.W.A. burst on to the scene, leaving controversy, parental advisory stickers and a fired up Tipper Gore in its wake. Into this whirlwind came Tupac Shakur, loud, proud and unapologetic as were many in this decade’s generation—myself included. I relocated to Los Angeles with my own acting and musical dreams, working with celebrities, mingling with stars and, yes, even dabbling in hip-hop. My bold, ambitious demo was produced in the same year as the novel’s time-frame—1996. The most popular single, Holy Ghost High, didn’t make to Billboard’s Top 100—or any chart for that matter—but it did get me booked on shows in and around Los Angeles, as well as an appearance across the pond in London, England. It was only one show, but what the heck? Ever-after I could legitimately be labeled “an international star!”
I never spoke to the inspiration behind the novel’s storyline but Tupac Shakur and I met indirectly. He took an illegal turn on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood and almost sideswiped me! I was angry until I recognized the driver. Tupac! Seeing that handsome face and big smile made me wish he’d hit me. We didn’t have camera phones back then, but I could have gotten his autograph and maybe tickets to the next show. I do remember where I was when I heard he died. It was a Thursday night before a friend’s wedding where I was the maid-of-honor. We’d gathered at one of her relative’s home to caravan to the rehearsal dinner. Amid the laughter and last minute preparations came the news via an FM-radio channel—Tupac is dead. The news was shocking and hit me harder than expected. I went to another room to shed a quick set of tears, then found a smile to paste on for my friend’s happy day. But for the rest of the weekend, my heart hurt. Such a bright and barely-tapped light. What a great loss for the world.
It wasn’t hard for me to recreate a '90's world for my characters. It was a decade that I lived and loved, with personal memories often intersecting worldwide events. These stories and memories all came together to create the setting for a little “thug love.”
Zuri's 90s set Decades: A Journey of African American Romance novel, Thug Love, is available for pre-order now. For more information about her and her writing, check out her website and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Michele Hauf: Creating a World Bible
Writing in a paranormal world is about the coolest gig a writer could get. At least, I like to think so. My readers know that all the paranormal romances I write are set in the same world. They are not written to be read in a specific order—save a few followup novellas—but that each story is in my world of Beautiful Creatures. Creating this world has been an organic process that started with the very first book I wrote, Dark Rapture, and is still evolving to this day in books such as Tempting The Dark and An American Witch In Paris.
Organizing the world and keeping it all straight is a task. And for writers who are just beginning to create a world, or may even write one story and not be sure if they are going to continue in that world, I recommend you start to keep notes as soon as possible. I think I started about half a dozen books in.
I keep a ‘World Bible’, which is a 3-ring binder—the biggest one you can buy—with sections and tabs and all that fancy jazz we stationary freaks love to collect from the office supply store.
These are the sections I keep updated with each story I write:
Book List—List of books in the series in order of publication. (Thirty-six novels, nineteen novellas so far).
Creature List—From Angels, to Vampires, to Demons, etc. I keep a page that defines the creature, with traits, strengths and weakness, and names of those in my world. This is updated as my idea of a specific creature evolves.
Terms—Every paranormal author has a different definition for ‘Vampire’ and every other para-term. I define them here, but also include words I’ve made up and things like made-up lands or rituals. I refer to this list often because it’s long, and I can’t always remember if I named it Beneath or Below.
Maps—I generally set my stories in Minnesota or Paris. I have city maps with locations of my character’s homes marked, as well as nightclubs, meeting places, secret headquarters, etc. I also keep a list of all characters in Paris, or Minneapolis, or any other city that I use a lot. It’s a handy reference if writing a new story in Venice, I'll refer to the list and think ‘Hey, maybe they know that person who lives close to them?’
Packs/Tribes—List of the various werewolf packs and vampire tribes. You could also include witch covens, angel clatches or whatever else you create.
Misc—This section has a page for each organization I create, such as The Order of the Stake, The Council, The Demon Arts Troop, and defines it better, with notes I want to remember. I also have a list of nightclubs—my characters tend to go to them a lot, and usually I use colors in their names. And images I’ve created for my world, such as the symbol that signifies an ichor den where a vampire can get faery blood.
Character Profiles—I keep a reasonably detailed page for each character, with the basics like description, friends, family, traits, etc. The book they were in as hero/heroine, and any other books they appeared in. And then Notes, where I will list all the necessary details I feel I might want to know in case I ever run into this character in a future book. Does he have a nickname for the heroine? Who did he kill in that one book? What are some childhood issues/influences? Any jewelry they always wear? Common phrases they use?
I include a photo, because I am a very visual writer. I need to find a picture of my character before I can start the story. Most I dig up on Pinterest, and many are actors I know because there may be something about their mannerisms that I want to take into the character. I keep a Pinterest page for each book and include all pictures of people, scenes, objects, clothing, etc. Readers like to see the pictures that inspired your stories!
I try to keep the character profile to one page. I currently have 196 character profiles. The majority are heroes and heroines, but there are some secondary characters that had a big enough role I wanted to profile them, or that I expected would eventually gain hero/heroine status. I also have some children of couples that I would eventually like to write stories for, and possibly the protagonists friends that, again, I feel I would someday like to create stories for. If I’m ever at a loss regarding who to write for the next story, I page through those profiles and imagine who I would love to pair.
That’s my bible! And you must know, if the house were on fire, it’s the first thing I would go for. It’s all on the computer and in the cloud, but that 3-ring binder is precious to me. I can hold all my ‘people’ in my hands. Weird? You bet! But that’s why we write the weird stuff. ;-)
AC Arthur: Behind the Romance
Behind every great love affair is… The world that brought the lovely couple together.
Like most readers, I enjoy reading for escapism. Let’s face it, in today’s world we need a safe place to retreat in order to retain our sanity.
When I sit down to read, I want to open the pages of a book and immediately become immersed into that world, whether it’s a paranormal or contemporary setting. My favorite contemporary setting is a world built around families because I enjoy the way family dynamics always impact the couple’s journey to love.
Creating a believable and interesting family is a must. For instance, in my Donovans series, one of the first things I did was to go back to the beginning for this family. Who were they before they became “The Donovans” that are now on display? What did they do for a living? Where did they live? I decided to root this wealthy family’s fortune in oil. Their great-great grandfather was born to freed slaves and gifted a piece of land on his wedding day, and from that small piece of land in Gillepsie County, Texas the Donovan family was born. From that family two brothers went on to work on a ranch and when that rancher died, history repeated itself as that rancher gave the next generation of Donovan brothers a piece of land. From that land, the Donovan Oil Well was created.
Lacing important pieces of history into the fictional world is also very important to me because I believe it adds authenticity that the reader can instantly relate to. The Donovan family and their friends navigate through relationships, family squabbles and current events such as the racial unrest gripping our nation, political situations, and weather catastrophes. All of these events create obstacles, add to the tension and strengthen the love of the hero and heroine in each story.
Another contemporary setting in romance is the small town. What I enjoy most about small town books is the sense of community and unity in not just the characters, but the place in which they live as well. In this instance, the actual location becomes the biggest piece to the puzzle that will complete the couple’s journey to love. Coastal towns, mountain towns, western towns, they all should be created in a way that will ultimately highlight the people that live in them.
When I began the Taylors of Temptation series (now called The Temptation series) I envisioned Mayberry (Andy Griffith Show) in the 21st century. I wanted the classic Main Street with City Hall and colorful storefronts with people walking down the street waving at each other and stopping for casual chit-chat. I wanted everyone to know each other’s business, good or bad—lol. Characters whose personalities were big and brought the town of Temptation directly to the reader. The family of sextuplets (Taylors) that would come back to Temptation and find their way to love were from the reality television, social media, flashy car lifestyle, which was a stark contradiction to the town. Blending those dynamics created a place that many readers have mentioned wanting to visit. And that is a wonderful feeling!
One of my favorite series to read with fantastic world building is Nora Roberts’ Dream trilogy. I love the way the Templeton family was created and how their lives intertwined with the secondary characters. The Monterey, California setting enhanced the chic hoteliers’ lifestyle in a quaint, yet, extravagant way. The setting and the family background helped to shape the main characters, especially the heroines and their motivations. Nora has several series featuring families that I truly enjoy because of her world building skills.
Everyone can relate to family dynamics and the drama and tension that ultimately stems from it. This is the part of creating the fictional world that pulls in the realistic. Sisters who are jealous of sisters. Brothers who despise brothers. Parents who have trouble communicating with their children. Cousins who feel slighted. Those left out of an inheritance. These are all scenarios that readers may have personally experienced to some degree. By building these situations into the lives of the hero and heroine, it establishes a genuineness that I believe readers appreciate.
So the next time you open up a book, prepare to be taken to another world. Hopefully an entertaining and enjoyable world that will leave you smiling at the end.
Jane Godman: Romance in a Paranormal World
I read and write other genres of romance, but paranormal calls me back time after time. I do write about werewolves and vampires, but my romances feature other paranormal races as well. Faeries, elves, dryads, necromancers, phantoms—even gods and demons. Paranormal romances are as varied as contemporary or historical romances. They feature equally damaged and diverse characters. They are not just about fangs and fur. They can be steamy or sweet, dark and angsty, or quirky and funny.
Readers of paranormal romance know what they like. Many of them started reading this genre because they like vampires or werewolves and they still have a preference for their first choice. They may stray and read mermaid or unicorn stories, but they will return to their favorite themes. Just as readers of contemporary romance will know if they prefer billionaires or firefighters and historical romance readers will know if their preference is for regency rakes, pillaging Vikings, or kilted Highlanders.
I think it’s precisely because paranormal takes us away to a fantasy world that it appeals to us so deeply. Fairy tales captured us as children (and as adults). I still read fairy tales, they are just darker now. Wouldn’t the world be a boring place if we only ever read about, or watched films and plays about, those things we have already experienced, or know will come our way?
When we pick up a paranormal romance, we know we will encounter superpowers, other worlds, magic and danger… All things we don’t see in our everyday lives. The characters are big, bold, bright and passionate. Everything is super-charged, including the romance. Emotions run high and so does the heat. The phwoar-factor in a paranormal romance tends to be off the scale. Larger than life extends into the bedroom—or the cave, crypt, enchanted forest; you get the picture.
When you pick up a paranormal romance, you know the time has come to suspend belief. When the handsome hero starts howling at the moon, you get dragged deep into the story, and why not? Why not lose yourself totally? Who wants realism anyway? True life can be over-rated.
When I write paranormal romance, it doesn’t tie me down to a set of rules. I like the freedom I have to build my own world. The only rules I have to stick to are the ones I write for myself. My characters’ flaws and kinks are the ones I give them. The world they live in is the one I’ve created.
But when it comes to falling in love, things can get tricky, particularly when the hero and heroine belong to different species. Does flirting mean the same thing to a vampire and a werewolf? Do they both understand innuendo? Are the dos and donts of dating the same? In my Otherworld books, I use the old legend that if a faerie and a human eat together, the human will belong to the fae. From the human perspective, it would be worth knowing that in advance…
Then, of course, there’s sex, mating for life (including the rituals surrounding it), and children. What if vampire marriage involves a blood ritual, but dryads have a midnight ceremony in the forest? What skills and powers would the offspring of a werewolf and a werebear possess?
In Enticing the Dragon, the second of my Beast rock star shifter stories, the hero, Torque, is a dragon shifter and the heroine, Hollie, is human. Right throughout the book, it appears that they can’t be together forever. Even if they ignore the fact that he’s immortal and she has a normal human lifespan, there’s another complication.
Although other shifter species can “convert” their mates by biting them, dragons must maintain the purity of the ancient bloodline. Hollie finally discovers that Torque has been keeping a secret from her. She can risk her life by being baptized in fire in the manner of ancient dragon warriors. If she takes Torque's bite while she is in the heart of the fire, she will be a true dragon, not a convert. While Torque doesn’t want to ask his human love to step into a furnace for him, Hollie is willing to risk all for a life at his side.
Torque and Hollie’s story is an example of making the world building work to fit the romance. The rules can’t be broken, that would be cheating. Therefore, the solution must be one that is plausible within the world the author has created.
Falling in love with someone of the same species can be hard enough. Taking account of the physical, emotional, and psychological difference between the partners in a paranormal romance is a commitment. It can also be fun!
Put together a tiger shifter and a werewolf (as I did in Awakening the Shifter) and the opportunities are endless. A cat and a dog falling in love? The ultimate narcissist and the obedience freak? Writing the story of how they learned to live with each other’s idiosyncrasies was so interesting.
Just another reason to love paranormal romance.
What do you think makes for a perfectly created and magical world? Share your thoughts with us in the comments and join the discussion on Social Media.