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Monday, April 29, 2013

A Whole New World

Picture Credit: http://www.sonofthesouth.net/
Picture Credit: http://www.cartographersguild.

I'd better start out by giving Disney credit for the title of this posting. For anyone not up on their Disney animated movies, "A Whole New World" is the name of one of the songs in Aladin.

Before I get into my posting, I also need to explain the absence of last week's post. I put my home on the market and have been looking for a new house. Between the work I've been doing to make sure the house I'm selling is in tip-top shape, and all the time I've spent online and driving around in house hunting--I'm beat. But, I'm happy to report that I've completely run out of things to fix and have almost run out of things to clean. And I've found a house that I'm hoping to buy. Now I get to just sit back (while keeping up on basic cleaning) and wait for a buyer to come along.

For those few who have the patience to make it through such a long intro, now I'll get into today's topic: creating a realistic world.

Every author must create a world. A person writing an biography doesn't have much leeway in the world he or she creates compared to someone writing science fiction. But a story set in inner-city Chicago will be very different than a story set in rural Wyoming. The key difference between the world created by a fantasy author and the world created by a historical author is the amount of research required.

World Building

  1. Know your world. You should be familiar with every detail of the world you intend to capture. Take time to familiarize yourself with it. You should be just as knowledgeable about your world as you are with your main character.
  2. Don't include everything you know. I may know the names and addresses of every person living on my main character's street. But an address book is boring. No one wants to read an endless description of how amazing your world is. Tidbits at the right time and place are much more effective.
  3. Never break your world's rules. Is there gravity in your world? Then don't suddenly do away with it in order to get your character out of a scary situation. Are bows and arrows the most sophisticated weapons in existence? Then don't give your character a bazooka. Now, I'm not saying that your character can't have special powers if you have set that up as one of your rules, but you will have disgruntled readers if you throw in an abrupt change of rules without an explanation.
  4. Flesh out the geography. Draw a map for yourself. It doesn't have to be something that would show up on the inside cover of your book. It doesn't have to look remotely professional. But if you don't know that the character turns left when she does her grocery shopping and right when she goes to the mall, it will come out in your writing. That goes for the city, the country, and even the house. Every time you step into a scene, you should know where things are located.
  5. Limit the special terrain. Let's use Harry Potter as an example here. Everyone knows that the staircases in Hogwarts change directions at will. A couple times, this becomes a significant fact in the plot. But if every time Harry wanted to go somewhere the staircases sent him somewhere else, it would get redundant and the staircases would be obnoxious to readers. This doesn't only apply to fantasy, either. Does it rain every time the main character has to go somewhere important? Is there a page-long rant about bad traffic every chapter?
  6. Know the history. People and cultures don't develop overnight. Events are always connected to what happened before. Whether you are writing in the real world or you are creating a new world, you should be very aware of the history of the people and places you write about. This may never come up in your whole book, but if you don't know it then sooner or later you will find yourself accidentally contradicting yourself. In addition to actual events, take a look at the distorted history that characters believe to be the truth. Ask yourself how the perception of history has been molded by outcomes. For example, the revolutionary war of US history would be seen very differently if the colonists had lost the war.
  7. Understand society. What is socially acceptable? What are the laws? The way your characters think and act is directly related to the society they know--even if they oppose social norms. 
  8. Evaluate religion. Characters' decisions and morals are heavily influenced by their religious beliefs. If you are writing about a person who is devout to a religion you know nothing about, then you had better start studying and talking to people of that religion--do not get all your information from antagonists of the religion you want to know about. If you don't understand your character's religion  you are only going to capture a bad stereotype. This is also true if you are writing fantasy and you're making up a religion. It's fine to make one up--just make sure you know it inside and out.
  9. Keep track of why you are setting up your world. No matter how amazing your world is, it alone will not carry your story. Your book should not be a record of the ins and outs of your world. Let the descriptions you share support your story--never the other way around.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Villainy at its Best

Picture Credit: http://villains.wikia.com/wiki/Main_Page
Everyone loves the cute cartoon villain who rubs his hands together in delight over how evil he is. But if you want a real villain--one that will capture your audience and make kids choose your "bad guy" for their Halloween costumes--your villain must be much more.

Picture Credit: http://scriptshadow.blogspot.com/2012/09/

Get in the villain's head

Think of the effective villains you have read about, watched in movies, or studied in history. These villains have depth and, if asked, would tell you they are the "good guys." They believe (or at least have convinced themselves) that they aren't really doing anything wrong. They would always tell you that their actions are justified.

This is true whether you are talking about the definite villain of a story, or if you are simply talking about a secondary character that your main character can not get along with.

Picture Credit: http://www.torontosun.com/2012/10/23/the-
Take a moment to get in the head of your favorite villain. What drives him or her? How does he or she justify the pain and suffering that he or she causes? Try to see the world through this villains eyes--that does NOT mean you have to agree with the villain--just try to understand what he or she is seeing.

Now do the same with a villain that you are writing. Is it easier or harder? Do you run into a wall where your villain only functions in a way that will hurt the main character for the sake of the story? If so, your villain is suspiciously like the cartoon character depicted at the top of this blog. Now, if you want your story to be punchy and light, you might be on the right track. But if you want a realistic villain, you need to give him or her more. Every villain must think and act as though he or she is the main character. There should not technically be a "bad guy."
Picture Credit: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/393442-

Give the villain a moral code

If you want people to be able to relate to your villain, try figuring out and somehow showing his or her moral code. Obviously, villains don't function with high morals on every desirable subject, but one or two redeeming features will make the villain more realistic. Your character may be a psychopath killer, but maybe he or she is absolutely loyal to that one friend from childhood.

Know the backstory

My last piece of advice on creating a villain that will stick with people, is to give the villain a back story. This is going to be a major part in why he or she is a villain today. Now, you have to be careful here because a secondary character's back story really can't take up pages and detract from the here-and-now. But if you can find ways to add tidbits from the villains past at times when it will add to the story, you will find that you have created a villain that everyone loves and hates at the same time.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Inns, Taverns, and Alehouses

Picture Credit: http://skyrim.nexusmods.com/mods/27425#


Around 43 AD, the invading Roman army began influencing medieval England as they introduced roads and shops called tabernae (singular is taberna).

In Rome, taberna was a general term indicating a shop of any kind--but the tabernae left behind in England sold food and wine. Once left to themselves, the locals quickly added ale and mead to the menu so they could suit lower budgets. Over time, the word tabernae became corrupted into the more-familiar tavern.

In the seventh century Ethelbert, the King of Kent, placed the first known drinking-establishment restriction, which limited the number of brewers in any given city or village. At this time it seems that taverns (or alehouses as they were also called in his day) had largely stopped selling any food items and specialized in alcoholic drinks.

In the twelfth century traveling became more customary and inns began to develop. An inn took the idea of a tavern and developed it by adding lodging and re-introducing food. During this same period, the words tavern and alehouse began to take on different meanings as they concentrated on different classes. Alehouses specialized in cheaper drinks (such as ale and mead) and taverns served only wine to attract the higher classes. By the end of the thirteenth century, inns, taverns, and alehouses were separate and distinguishable.

The thing about changes in establishment names over a large area is that they always take time. There was no overnight change in definitions. In my fantasy book, I have taken on this idea of transitioning that happened in the twelfth century. While it is pure fantasy and therefore does not claim any century--and it definitely does not take place in any real country--I have created a village where the idea of any travelers other than merchants would be cause for shock. They have kept the name tavern for their drinking establishment even though the tavern keeper has adjusted to traveling merchants enough that he offers lodging. However, when the main character winds up in a city, she finds inns.


The importance of inns is obvious. Travelers needed somewhere to stay in a growing world where they could not continue to rely on the generosity of locals.

What about taverns and alehouses? They were community centers. This is where locals would go to relax at the end of the day. It was also where social gatherings were held. Even the occasional wedding took place in taverns and alehouses. Yes, there was drinking. But there was also singing, and gossiping, and gambling. Men and women both frequented drinking houses.  In fact, many of the early inns, taverns, and alehouses were run by monks and as a result a large portion of the tavern songs were written by monks and other clergy. See more about tavern songs, including lyrics, here.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Perfect Story

Picture Credit: http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/cadbury%20creme%20eggs

For this posting on writing the perfect story, I had to stop and think about what to use as a picture. I finally decided to go with the most perfect thing I could think of--Cadbury eggs.

I don't know about you, but I LOVE Cadbury eggs. I read on Kristen Llobrera's blog that that liking these things is a sign that you haven't hit adulthood yet (see her blog here). Well if that's true, I'm still a LONG way from adulthood and I'm happy about it.

For those of you who are not chocolate lovers, I'm including a much more boring picture to depict a perfect story that even you can be happy with.
Picture Credit: http://rafzab.com/

Whichever image you prefer, let's take a look at how to develop the perfect story. This formula is one I picked up from a class I attended, taught by Clint Johnson. You can visit his website here. The perfect story will have the following 6 traits:

  1. Absolute simplicity of comprehension- every reader will completely understand every facet of the story with the first reading
  2. Absolute depth of meaning- every reader will gain a new and deeper understanding with every reading
  3. Absolute originality- nothing about the story will be similar to anything that has ever been told or experienced before
  4. Absolute universality- every reader completely understands and relates to the story
  5. Absolute intensity- every scene in the story will perfectly grip readers with force and make it impossible to put the book down
  6. Absolute authenticity- every scene is completely believable and logical
After reading through this list, there is an obvious reason why the perfect story has not been written (nor will it ever be written). It is impossible for any story to reach absolutes in all of these aspects--quite frankly, I think we'd be hard-pressed to think of a book that reached any one of these absolutes.

What we end up with is give-and-take that looks like this:
In the circle, you have to decide where your story should fall to tell it as effectively as possible. The closer you move toward one thing, the further you are moving from something else. So, you may ask, if the idea of a perfect story is impossible, why talk about it at all? Good question! 

Each of these 6 traits is desirable. Think about your story. Where does it fall in this circle? Is that the best place you can think of for the particulars of what you want to accomplish? Could you add just a little more of one of the traits to make your story a little more perfect? There is no single right answer, and different readers have different preferences, but taking a look at this circle and thinking over your story may show you that little something it was missing.