Image to Idea, A Practical Example to Illustrate the Argument, Episode 1 (Worldbuilding Wednesday 4)

World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.

This is a long arc discussion of world building, spread over multiple installments throughout 2016 (if all goes as planned). I’m not trying to write 3 pithy posts that encapsulate everything in 1000 words each (although those can be valuable as well). So expect me to take my time as I mosey through my thoughts and my experiences, and trundle in a few guest posts besides so you can get a different perspective on specific topics.

I’ve been thinking for a while of writing a standalone fantasy novel (STOP LAUGHING), one not set in any of my other worlds. I’ve been far too busy working on major projects to have time much less the mental energy and space to start building a new world (except for the space opera I’m working on, on the sly). But a few months ago I got the most basic flickering of an idea, and it occurred to me I could use this image as a practical example to work through.

Therefore, periodically during this series I will drop in a practical example, drawing from the original image and slowly expanding it as an example that will perhaps give some insight into how I work through developing an image-idea into a story-ready narrative foundation.

Here’s the image:

The scene I see in my head is an isolated prison, small but massive, sited on a crag with a single window overlooking a cliff face. A woman of about 40 sits in the most heavily fortified and guarded cell. She is relaxed, thinking intently. Footsteps sound, and she tenses. Chains and bars are shifted, the door opens, and a uniformed man of about her age appears. He is a stranger to her, although she notices that he is handsome. She makes a sardonic comment whose hostility is only mildly veiled. He does not react visibly but informs her with utterly correct and borderline insulting politeness that he is there to escort her to . . . .

Look how many world building elements are already present:

1) Crag and cliff suggest a detail about the physical geography.

2) The prison is isolated, not in the middle of a city or near by or adjacent to a population center.

3) A culture that uses prisons as a means of separating out certain people from the main population. Not every culture uses this form of confinement and separation as punishment or control.

This is a perfect example of how a writer can default to familiar sociocultural systems and not think about why they have included them. As an American writer, it would be easy for me to use a version of how I imagine the US prison system, only set in a fantasy world, and that’s fine, if it is what you specifically want to do. But as an alternative, I might stop here to reconsider what might otherwise become generic details and background.

What does this prison represent? Is it an institutionalized prison system, which presupposes a hierarchy, a bureaucracy, law courts, and officials who work to enforce a legal system that may be just or unjust? Is it the private dungeon of a powerful eminence who can imprison people without fear of repercussion, and if so, what gives this eminence the ability to lock away their enemies? Is it a rebel holdout hiding from the authorities, with a key player from the authority’s camp under their control, for now? Are there gods and monsters? Could it be the local version of a mental institution? Is the person inside being sequestered for their own safety? In what other ways might this scene be explained? Grabbing for the first thing that comes to mind can often limit the setting.

4) The prisoner is deemed dangerous or valuable or a pariah (or some other option). In what manner she is deemed dangerous or valuable or a pariah I don’t yet know.  But think how many angles this question offers.

Is her status and that of the uniformed soldier essentially egalitarian, except he works for the authorities and she was imprisoned because she was working against them? Is the society one in which women have legal inferiority, and she is not considered dangerous in and of herself but is being held as a hostage to enforce the compliance of a man who is related to her? Yet she hasn’t been placed under genteel house arrest as would be the case in a world in which women can be more easily subdued by social means or are perceived as not capable of being powerful or valuable enough to need locking up under heavy guard in isolation, whether because of their own power or the power of the people who may want them back.

Possibly her gender has nothing to do with her being locked up or the circumstances of how she has been locked up. Perhaps her religion or ethnicity or class is the key, or a monstrous crime she has committed, or her work as a rebel against the authorities, or her position as an architect of the authority that the oppressed are rebelling against.

5) A man in uniform suggests a bureaucratic social structure. I don’t generally think of scrappy rebels as wearing elaborate uniforms, but maybe they do. I am 100% certain he does not work AT the prison but is an outside person come to the prison with the express purpose of moving her to somewhere else or because her help is needed in solving some problem. So his uniform has already started pushing my head to see this place as representative of a fairly rigid top-down centralized government of some sort that runs this prison, and has imprisoned her for unspecified reasons. But I might change my mind later as I get more information.

6) She reacts to the uniform, not to the man. Therefore there is a bad history there between her and the people who wear those uniforms.

7) She is in solitary confinement. Character-wise, being alone does not bother her, and also suggests at the very least that she finds solitude preferable to being in proximity with the other people and/or guards in this prison.

8) Sardonic comments and politely-veiled hostility between the two characters suggests the potential for sparks to fly. The default here is a heterosexual romance, and I feel I may be headed that way.

9) Will I ever get tired of the trope of men in uniform (or at the very least great clothes)? Evidently not.

10) Thinking about who she is and why she might be in prison and why she might distrust the uniformed man (beyond the obvious reason that he represents her jailers), and why he might display immediate (therefore predetermined) hostility to her, makes me think about what she has been doing during the months or years she has been stuck in the cell. So I tease out a few more details, to try and get my bearings.

The cell is furnished with a simple wood bed, a covered chamber pot, a stand with a wash basin and pitcher, and a small table with a single chair. She is relaxed, thinking intently, and has positioned the table so the angle of light from the air vents in the wall illuminates the tabletop, her hands, ink and quill pen, and a pile of paper, some blank, some tightly filled with a painstakingly precise handwriting and various diagrams.

It is right about here that I realize I want to create a variation on the Prometheus story. I don’t know how or when or why, but that’s the seed of it: The woman being held in prison has done something the Authorities really did not want her to do that involved giving knowledge or skills to people the Authorities never wanted to have that knowledge but can’t take back. Now an outside circumstance has forced the Authorities’ hand: They need her help.

This gives me a conflict. In fact, it is a nested conflict, in which an earlier conflict drives the current conflict. But it also throws up in the air all kinds of questions about the setting. Those will have to be for the next episode of “From Image to Idea,” coming later, whenever I feel it fits in the series.


Next week: Either a guest post from Aliette de Bodard as a companion piece to Inductive vs Deductive (because she works in the opposite manner to me and I think it is always useful to get another angle)


The Map As Theory (if Aliette’s post isn’t ready)

Previously: Introduction, The Flowering of an Image, Inductive or Deductive

Inductive or Deductive (Worldbuilding Wednesday 3)

World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.

Long ago on Twitter I asked people what world building questions they would like me to answer. Several of the questions seemed to me to fall into a set that was about my approach to world-building.

How early in the story do you need to know the world? Before you start, or as you get to pieces you need? (Colleen W)

I am curious about the level of detail to start out with vs. what is filled in later? (Stephen M)

Your fave method top>down vs. bottom>up. How detailed is enough? (Sunny K)

Is world building an inductive or deductive process? (Paul W)

In many ways I am not an orderly world builder. I like to rely on a combination of instinct (allowing the subconscious to churn), research (deliberate exploration), and synchronicity (the space where the two intersect).

As I said last week in The Flowering of an Image (WBW2), the world and the story develop together. To briefly recap: My stories have their genesis in an almost filmic image of a character embedded in a setting.

The initial image/scene already feeds me information about the world. King’s Dragon appeared to me as a landscape with a feel of early medieval Europe. By the evidence of the type of window and the carriage, Cold Magic wanted to be set in an equivalent of the 18th or 19th century. At this stage it is also important to remember that these earliest and basic images may also be loaded with the most standard options or fallbacks, with common backdrops and familiar aspects because that is typically where our minds go first: To what we’ve seen and read most often.

It’s important for me to find a balance between that spark of an image that will guide me into the story versus grabbing for the first and thus possibly most generic ideas. I embrace the inspiration while I also work to not let my creativity settle into a familiar place. I must leave myself space to interrogate my choices in a conscious way.

At this point I will usually write an initial version of the scene and, perhaps, its followup section. I won’t think too much about where and why, just feel out where my mind wants to go with the character(s) and setting. This first and rawest draft will never be published anywhere and never seen by anyone except me. I may also write bits and pieces of other scenes. I might write notes or sketches of what could happen next or what some major plot points or end points are.

As I do this I am continually making decisions about details, which to include and which to discard and which to think harder about. We all do this when we write fiction no matter where it is set and even (or especially) if we aren’t consciously aware that is what we are doing, which is why I agree with Tom Pollock’s statement that “all fiction is worldbuilding.” A story set in modern London is world built in much the same way a secondary world set in the imaginary Republic of Hesjan is. The made-up aspect is the fictional story element; how it interacts with the setting and what the writer chooses to show to the reader is part of the world building process. If I don’t examine the details I may end up (but don’t always) perpetuating stereotypes and engaging in lazy narrative choices.

In other words I am defining world building NOT in the sense of coming up with maps and made-up cultures and history of a non-existing “secondary world” but in the sense of how the artist describes the setting and how the characters function within it. To give an example: The current USA tv show Hawaii 5-0 is set in Hawaii, in the present day. No world-building, right? Only the show has world building stamped all over it in every choice the producers and directors and writers (most or all of whom are, I believe, from outside Hawaii) make every week. They have created a “fictional Hawaii” to promote to a primarily Mainland USA (and international) audience that relies in part on stereotypes about Hawaii because the real culture of Hawaii veers away from people’s expectations and/or may confuse viewers.

Details begin to create a barebones framework that the world will ultimately be built on because the details tell you a great deal about the social and physical landscape.

For instance, if I introduce a character as a girl who is selling fruit in the marketplace, that means she lives in a culture where girls and women can sell goods in the market. If the scene shows that it is both common and accepted for them to do so, that tells you something (for example) about Mai’s oasis home town in Spirit Gate.

In the opening to Court of Fives a mother and her four daughters are taking their leisure at dusk in an outdoor courtyard. One of the girls is reading by the light of an oil lamp. Poetry exists, as well as secret love notes. Consider how the details start creating the world: It’s warm enough they can comfortably sit outdoors in the evening, so it’s likely either summer or a sub-tropical or tropical climate, but the way they are using the courtyard as an extension of the house made it feel this is a place where it is warm year round. The oil lamp gives a clue about the level of technology. The girls are literate and educated. Most of these details were not ones I “decided on” before I wrote the scene but rather came to me embedded in the action.

Part of my process becomes untangling how these earliest details fit into and help define the world.

Small details that accrete as I write and which are woven into a larger whole are one aspect of how I build up a world. I’ll come back to the issue of details later in this series.

But there comes a point where I have to stop writing snippets and step back to consider the big picture, the overarching geographical and cultural and historical elements.

I need to build a basic scaffolding to give me a basic sense of place or, if you will, an understanding of the foundation that roots the story. From this point forward the big picture and the details develop in tandem with the unfolding plot and the characterization.

Once the foundation (or scaffolding) has enough heft, I can start actually writing the book instead of noodling. Even when writing the first and subsequent drafts I still do not know everything about the world, and in fact I will never know everything about the world (nor do I need to). At intervals the plot will stall out because of a cultural or geographical or historical aspect I’ve not yet worked out, a piece of information I didn’t know I needed to know until that moment. Or I’ll discover or have a creative flash of something really cool or momentous that will turn out to be of crucial importance in the narrative.

I have come to understand my personal process well enough to leave space for these moments of synchronicity as I move forward. Rather than rigidly shoving things into place, I try to leave room for the unexpected to jump in and my subconscious to play. Often if I’m pondering a world or plot detail I will stumble across exactly the thing I need, sometimes in the strangest places, in the last place I would think to be looking, and sometimes exactly where I had hoped to find an answer.

Here is the basic outline that is kind of what I do:

1. basic idea which features a basic character in a proto setting

2. start noodling

3. need more context so do some overt building & research

4. start actually writing, and continue world-building as I go through drafts

Next week: A Practical Example
Previously: Introduction, The Flowering of an Image

The Flowering of an Image (Worldbuilding Wednesday 2)

World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.


Why do I work the way I do? How do I world build? Where do I start?

Usually I conceive my stories in the flowering of an image in my head. In this image I imagine a character in a situation that has an inherent emotion or urgency or conflict that engages my passion to explore it further.

Why and how my mind generates these images I do not know.

The seven volume Crown of Stars series grew from an image of a youth walking on a path over a ridge as a storm rushed in from the sea. On the wings of that storm he meets a woman in armor who is a supernatural manifestation. He is dissatisfied with his dreary, ordinary life. The grim warrior woman seems to him to personify the life of adventure he believes he yearns for. But the bargain she offers and which he accepts is not truly a gift nor is it a good bargain for him or indeed for anyone. In the image I saw in my head, the setting and situation made it clear it was to take place in a European-medieval environment. The scene described is the literal genesis point of the series. In the published novel, this scene takes place in the 3rd chapter of the 1st book.

Sometimes the initial image I have doesn’t make it into the book in the exact form I first encountered it in my head. My conception of Cold Magic started with two girls, cousins, seated in a classroom overlooking an entry forecourt. Through the window they see a carriage arrive conveying a man who will change their lives in some unspecified way. When I wrote the novel I kept the academy, the cousins, the man, and them watching his carriage arrive through a window, but changed the venue of the meeting to their home. In the initial image, I knew nothing about the man except that he was arrogant and from the upper ranks of their society, and the only thing I knew about the young women was that they loved each other with unshakeable loyalty. Their dress and the building and carriage revealed the setting to be in some kind of 18th/19th century milieu.

That’s where the STORY starts: With a character and some basic decisions about who and where (both physically and emotionally) the character stands at that moment.

Once I decide to start building a novel or series atop that image/scene, that emotion, that interaction, I start the world building process.

Therefore: The world building process, for me, goes hand in hand with the accumulation of plot, character, and incident that develops into the story. The two processes interact with and feed each other. One doesn’t happen alone.

I don’t build a world and then stick a story in it.

I don’t come up with a plot & characters & construct a world around them.

Listen: it is perfectly okay to create a world in either of those ways. Or in other ways. I know writers who literally “discover the world as they write” and those who can’t start until until they have a notebook full of details. And that’s fine, just as it is fine to prefer as little overt world building as possible, if that’s the story you want to tell.

The reason I emphasize that I am only talking about how I do things is that some writers & writing teachers talk about HOW TO DO THINGS as if there is only one way or as if their way is the “correct” or “best” way.

I have only ONE FIRM RULE of writing:


For me, the elements of character and setting are intertwined such that I could not pull those characters and that plot out of one story and insert them into another, because characters and culture and thus their actions and reactions exist in a specific map.

In other words, if I have done my job right, the characters and the world can’t be pulled apart and re-used separately. They function together. They aren’t discrete elements.


Next week: Inductive or Deductive
Previously: Introduction

Introduction to a Series of Posts on Worldbuilding in Fiction (Worldbuilding Wednesday 1)

I write science fiction and fantasy in both the adult and YA genres. My stories are strongly driven by character journeys & by character interaction. It is also fair to say I focus on character/world interaction and on creating a story world (that is, the world in which the story takes place) that feels vivid enough that readers can feel they really have a sense of that world and how it functions. If a reader tells me the world felt “immersive” then I feel I have accomplished what I set out to do.

Standard Disclaimer: If you write fiction, you don’t have to have the same goals I do. Honestly? I would hope you have your own set of goals unique to you. When I talk about things I do, or things I think about, I am not suggesting everyone must do this. This is not prescriptive. I don’t have “a program.” I don’t think people have to do things the way I do. This is one way, not THE way. These are my reflections after publishing 25 novels over 27 years, things that have worked for me, how I’ve analyzed what I do, what worked, what didn’t work, what I like and don’t like. That’s it. You can agree, disagree, some, both, all. ALSO: I welcome questions & discussion.


A definition for world building

In fantasy & sf we tend to think of world building as drawing a map and making up countries, histories, and religions of a secondary world that doesn’t exist.

But to quote British author Tom Pollock, “All fiction is world building.”

Whether a story is set in our world or in a fantastical world, the author is nevertheless creating “an environment in which the story takes place” (Pollock).

To create this environment we must therefore make choices on multiple levels and layers.

Who or what is the story about?

Why is the story about that person or persons or that event or idea?

The choices we make, and the angles and vectors along which we define and present those choices, are part of our own world building narrative. That is, they are not contextless choices. They don’t have no meaning and no consequence because choices in narrative always have magnitude and direction. Often they reflect what the creator thinks is important enough or exciting and interesting enough (or commercial enough) to be the focus of a tale. Sometimes they are a reflection of what the creator thinks is an appropriate or worthwhile story, whether or not the creator has examined why they have that opinion and what cultural forces may have shaped that view.

Beyond the basic question of “who or what is the story about” lie further questions. Here is where world building comes into play in an even more deliberative way.

What events and details will be used in the story to create a sense of character, setting, and plot?

All the choices we make as writers about the basic questions mentioned above are world-building.

As artists we continually make choices. We can’t put everything in the story. No matter how detailed, how long, how many tangents on the sewage system of Paris that Victor Hugo puts in his novels, we still pick and choose what is included and what isn’t included.

And that’s fine. That’s necessary. There is no right answer to what you (the individual artist) choose for your own work. That’s up to you.

My focus in the early stages of world building becomes

  1. asking myself to pause and think about why I am making the choices I do
  2. finding ways to envision a world without simply repeating what I’ve done before and thereby recapitulating my usual ways of thinking
  3. layering the world building into the text without weighing down the story in details and tangents.

The goal, for me, is always to create a sense of vivid presence, that the reader feels they have really walked through the world and gotten a strong sense of it as a place.

To that end, I have set a personal goal for 2016 to write a Worldbuilding (or Writing) Wednesday post every week (or almost every week). These will mostly be shorter (under 1000 word) posts moving slowly through various topics, because shorter posts strike me as more do-able week by week than longer more intense essays. That way I can divide up complex topics into shorter bursts and have a hope of actually posting regularly.

Worldbuilding Wednesday Index:

Week 2: The Flowering of an Image
Week 3: Inductive or Deductive
Week 4: Image to Idea
Week 5: Deductive to Inductive: A Guest’s Perspective (Aliette de Bodard)
Week 6: The Map as Theory
Week 7: The Internal Map
Week 8: Geography is Destiny 
Week 9: The Big Narratives Stand Atop Those Lives
Week 10: Writing Outside Your Own Experience
Week 11: Narrative Maps
Week 12: Writing Women Characters into Epic Fantasy Without Quotas adf
Week 13: Tropes: A Guest Post by Juliet McKenna

The Week Ahead (1 Feb 2015)

While January remains the first month of the Gregorian calendar, February marks the real beginning of an incredibly busy and I hope not too stressful year for me.

In 2014 I published a single piece of fiction ( Spiritwalker-related novelette posted as free fiction on my web site), no novels, and a few scattered pieces of non fiction in the form of blog posts. While that seems sparse, I also did a LOT of work on other projects. You can find a retrospective of 2014 and a list of forthcoming 2015 projects here.

On February 10 my first short fiction collection, THE VERY BEST OF KATE ELLIOTT, is released by Tachyon Publications.

February also brings two interviews (one at writer Gail Carriger’s blog and the other at SFSignal), a very personal blog post at Book Smugglers tomorrow (February 2), an AMA at Reddit on February 17, as well as a few other posts yet to be scheduled. Reviews of THE VERY BEST have started to drop: Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Interzone, with more coming.

For the month of February I will try a steady diet of keeping readers apprised without engulfing them with too much promo, which means I am trying to make a schedule for myself that will include writing about other things in order to counteract the sense that we are all of us being inundated by a promotional barrage.

So, stealing outright from the Book Smugglers with their weekly Sunday “Smugglers Stash and News,” here’s what’s up for this coming week:


Monday February 2:

The Courage to Say Yes, a guest post at The Book Smugglers

On my blog, a post wishing Smart Bitches, Trashy Books a very happy 10th anniversary and explaining why I think SMTB has been so important.


Tuesday February 3:

Showing off my Polish covers for Crown of Stars. After publishing the first three some years ago, Zysk did a re-design for the whole series that I really like.


Wednesday February 4:

Kill Your Rituals, Not Your Darlings, a guest post by Harry Connolly


Thursday February 5: Enthusiasm Thursday

A long overdue “enthusiasm” (I don’t really write reviews which is why I prefer to call this an Enthusiasm) for THE TIME ROADS by Beth Bernobich. My goal is to write an Enthusiasm every Thursday on whatever takes my fancy.


Friday February 6: Memoir Friday

I begin a 24 week series, each Friday blogging a (often very short) chapter from Remembering Japan 1945 – 1946, my father’s memoirs of his nine months posted in Japan after World War II. I’ve been meaning to do this for a while and his granddaughter (my daughter) kindly got everything ready to go. However else my blogging goes, this series will run on Fridays until all the chapters are posted.


Saturday: Shabbat and thus no post.


If all goes as planned my first newsletter will launch next week, 10 February. You can sign up here on the blog page (right sidebar) or on my webpage.

The newsletter will be occasional and short, with pre-order and new release information, updates or momentous news, and a few surprises and previews that subscribers will get before anyone else.