Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Spec Fic Writer's 101: World Building by Ken Scholes

Ken Scholes is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated writers in the industry, seamlessly combining disparate elements of both science fiction and fantasy in his epic fantasy series The Psalms of Isaak. His world building is sweepingly original but maintains a comfortable familiarity to long time readers of the genre. So when Ken agreed to take part in this series and asked what topic I'd like him to cover, world building was a no brainer. I found Ken's approach to both unexpected and intuitive and am sure you'll agree. Enjoy.

World-Building, Trailer Boy Style

I’m pleased and grateful that Matt asked me to participate in his series of guest posts on speculative fiction writing.  When he invited me, I asked which topic he’d like me to tackle and he suggested world-building.

Now, though I’ve created dozens of worlds over the years including the world in my series with Tor, The Psalms of Isaak, I don’t for a minute consider myself an expert on the subject of world-building.  I’m still learning as I go, having just recently finished my fourth novel, and I’m already seeing what I’d like to do differently the next time I tackle a multi-volume series.  Still, it’s a topic I have some experience with.
When I think about the world my stories take place in – whether it’s truly a world or a universe or just a room in a house – I think about it only in terms of doing what is necessary to suspend the disbelief and engage the imagination of my reader.  The setting I place my story in is as critical to that story’s success as the characters I place in that setting and the problems that they face.

The Psalms of Isaak was my first foray into creating a big world and my approach to it was actually rather sparse.  I didn’t start out with copious notes or a map or any of that.  I started out with telling the story and allowed the world to fill itself in as I wrote.  I don’t think I even had a map until I’d finished Lamentation. Most of the world lives in my head and in the pages of the books I’ve written.  Other than some map sketches, I don’t think there are any notes around about the Named Lands.  But I do have some other things.  Other stories from earlier in the history of that world – things referred to as myth or history in the series and now being expounded upon – that reveal more of the earlier times that produced the present.  But I also have bits of verse and snippets from imagined books.  And, throughout the series, references to events, artists, actors, leaders, beliefs, quotes, descriptions of meals all to make that world a place readers can imagine.

I try to think of the things that make our world feel plausible, real, believable and then layer them into my narrative about this other world.  But again, I try to keep it light so that my reader is using their own imagination to fill in the gaps.  I like to get them to do the heavy lifting.

The other thing I do in regards to my world-building is actually rooted in my characters.  I tend to be quite brutal about my third person limited POV and that also translates into how my characters interact with their world.  If they are in a familiar place they are not going to spend pages and pages on the texture of a leaf or how the banking system works.  They will have enough information in their head about those things to move through them but not enough to bog down the story into an info-dump about things that they would never pause to think about in the midst of their present activities.

POV can be a great tool – perhaps the greatest tool – for showing readers your world.  But not all at once in paragraph after paragraph of detail.  Instead, little bits of world revealed here and there as the characters move through it.  And a world is more than what a character sees – it is what they hear, smell, taste, touch – which gives a writer tons to work with.  And by layering in those details, spread out across an entire book, you build a sense of your character’s connection with their world that the reader then experiences vicariously.

So, distilled down to a few bullet points, here are my suggestions for world-building based on my own process (so your mileage may vary):

  • Less is more and patience is a virtue:  Layer your world into the book throughout the book.  Use small, minor details – like bits of history, reference to artists or other historical characters, important places -- so that by the end of the book, the reader feels like they visited a real place.
  • Engage your reader’s imagination for the heavy lifting:  Give enough to get them seeing what you see and then trust them to see it.  Resist the urge to overstate the world.
  • Stay faithfully in your character’s POV and show us what they see through all of our senses:  Again, less is more but when you’re layering it in from multiple sources, lightly, by the end of the book, the reader feels like they’ve experienced that character’s life, including the world they live in.

Again, big thanks to Matt for including me on his guest list.  You’re all welcome to follow my regular Saturday blog at Genreality.net, chase me down on Facebook, or find out more about me at www.kenscholes.com.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Spec Fic Writers 101: Research with Teresa Frohock

When I first started this project, I reached out to all of the authors I have interviewed since the blog started and asked them if they would like to contribute. But with that number being fairly low in comparison to the number of topics I'd hoped to cover, I also asked that they invite any other industry professionals that they thought might like to contribute. Stina Leicht was kind enough to connect me with not one but two other authors who had already made my 'to read' list. Teresa Frohock was one of those. With NaNoWriMo and various other projects and obligations kicking my butt at the moment it make take a while for me to get to Miserere: An Autumn Tale, but based on the sample chapters available on Night Shade's website and what an absolute pleasure Teresa was to work with on this project, I will definitely find the time sooner than later.

About the Author: Teresa Frohock is the author of Miserere: An Autumn Tale and is currently concluding work on a second novel, tentatively entitled THE GARDEN, which is unrelated to the Katharoi series. Teresa was raised in North Carolina, lived in Virginia and South Carolina before returning to the Piedmont, where she currently resides with her husband and daughter. Teresa has long been accused of telling stories, which is a southern colloquialism for lying.

With our author introduced and her bona fides established, lets see what Teresa has to say about the most seemingly mundane and often foolishly avoided  aspect of writing in speculative fiction; research.

A quick disclaimer: I know this is intended to be a 101 how-to; however, I’m going to assume you already know that you need to research things like how many miles a person can walk in a day or how fast a horse can run, etc. I’m not going to insult your intelligence (or mine) like that. Instead, I want to focus on research in a slightly different vein.

Story, characterization, and a strong plot are the true backbone of your work, a series of bold lines, if you will. Solid research gives your fiction a deeper pigmentation and enables you to show character development in order to intensify the realism of your fiction. The trick is not to bombard your reader with useless information.

If you can develop the knack for weaving your research into the story seamlessly, then a well-researched novel is going to give you an edge that others lack. So, how do you do that? Consider this exchange from Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind:

“I don’t want iron,” the innkeeper said. “A drab has too much carbon in it. It’s almost steel.”
“He’s right,” the smith’s prentice said. “Except it’s not carbon. You use coke to make steel.
Coke and lime.”
The innkeeper nodded deferentially to the boy. “You’d know best, young master. It’s your business after all.

This passage clicked with me because in my current novel, my protagonist Guillermo is a blacksmith. I originally intended a scene with Guillermo working in the forge, and in order to understand the process of making steel, I did quite a bit of research, whereupon I learned the following: steel is comprised of several alloys, carbon being the most important and coke is a fuel with a high carbon content.

Knowing these two things, I saw how Rothfuss divulged some important information about the innkeeper to any of his readers who also happened to know these facts.

First, the innkeeper is knowledgeable about process of making steel, something beyond most laymen in a medieval society. No two blacksmiths worked metal exactly alike and they guarded their processes jealously—think trade secrets and you’ve got the right idea. The smith’s apprentice, who should understand the process better than an innkeeper, knows that coke and lime make steel, but he doesn’t understand why (i.e. because coke produces carbon).

Because, like the innkeeper, I know these things, then I realize the smith’s apprentice is kind of dumb and the innkeeper is more than he seems.

Second, when the smith’s apprentice corrects the innkeeper, the innkeeper concedes the boy’s point and does not shame him by pointing out that coke has a high carbon content and is merely a fuel. This denotes graciousness on the part of the innkeeper. He doesn’t need to make the smith’s apprentice look the fool in front of the other men. The innkeeper knows he is right; however, he doesn’t need to pump his own ego at someone else’s expense.

See what Rothfuss did there?

The preceding analysis rolled through my mind in the few brief seconds that it took me to read the exchange between these two characters. For those in the know, that very tiny exchange rendered quite a bit of information about the innkeeper and the smith’s apprentice, but Rothfuss also took into account that many people wouldn’t know the carbon/coke references. For those people, the exchange was so brief as to be a quick side-trip in a very serious discussion.

And that is precisely how to entwine research into your story to enhance characterization and deliver important information to your reader without pages of useless facts. Rothfuss uses his research to enrich his story, not overwhelm it.

So then the question becomes: How much information is too much information?
Here’s the deal: you’re telling a story, not writing a treatise. There is a big difference between these two things, and in fiction, it is necessary to relay a fact as expeditiously as possible.

The issue is to weave the facts into the story without breaking the rhythm of the prose. For me, this takes practice and numerous edits, but once I hit that right mix of prose and fact, the story simply sings. Your number one rule should be that any research that you relay to the reader should be tied directly into the immediate events in the story.

Research into Iberian military practices gave me the information I needed to construct the break between Tomás and Guillermo in THE GARDEN. By knowing that a strict table of fines and punishments were set out for soldiers’ infractions during a war, I could easily weave the fine of four hundred maravedís for killing a señor during a conflict into the discussion between Tomás and Guillermo.
My example:

“You’ve dishonored yourself.” Tomás’ whisper was a hiss. “And me.” The rain did not cause the water in the older man’s eyes.
Guillermo didn’t drop his gaze. “Vicente gave the insult.” Why, for once, couldn’t Tomás take his side?
“He was your superior! You think you are better than him? As good as him?” Tomás’ gauntleted fist struck Guillermo’s chest, just over his heart. The steel ripped his gambeson and tore into his flesh. “Why can’t you accept your place in this world?”
“Shut up. He’s dead, Guillermo. It is four hundred maravedís for killing a señor during a conflict! Do you have that money?”
“You know I don’t.” Neither of them had to articulate what would happen if the fine wasn’t met. Guillermo remembered the caballero’s shrieks as the lash had shorn his back into shreds.
"I can—”
“No!” Tomás’ eyes blazed. “You will let me handle this. I will talk to Don Flores. We can offer the smithy, but you must come back and accept responsibility. You can work the debt off in Vicente’s household. It’s a matter of honor, Guillermo.”

I don’t need to go into a great deal of detail about the rank of a royal señor or what is considered honorable conduct. Tomás lays it all out brilliantly for me, and Guillermo’s refusal to take responsibility for his actions gives me the impetus I need for Tomás to walk away from him. This exchange also enables me to show the reader that Guillermo has something of a superiority complex and I get to highlight the generational gap between Tomás, an older man who is a staunch royalist and good soldier, and Guillermo, someone who is looking out for number one.

I don’t have to lay out the entire table of military codes for the reader, or give the exchange rate on the maravedís. The reader can infer that four hundred maravedís is a lot of money, because Tomás is willing to put up his smithy in place of the money. The primary focus on this section is not the factual details, but the story: Guillermo has done a very bad thing, he is in way over his head, and Tomás is willing to give up his livelihood to save his life. The factual details—the murder of a royal señor, the maravedís, working the debt off in the family’s household—simply add layers and texture to the interplay between these two men.
So how do beginning writers know when you’ve got too much information? The best thing to do is write the scene or chapter with all the information embedded in the text. Sometimes I do that just to cement the details in my mind. Then wait a few days (or weeks) and go back and reread the section. If at any point, the explanations overshadow the story or the action—for example if you have three lines of dialogue followed by three paragraphs of exposition—then you’ll want to trim the exposition until you’ve whittled away the extraneous material. Once you’ve eliminated the superfluous information, start looking for places where you can work the facts into the dialogue and the action of a scene.

This is a definite case where less is always more. Two or three subtle facts—the texture of the clothing, the coinage, or even utilizing a colloquial term for a mundane object—can enhance the realism of a story. Start watching how other authors interweave their research in their stories and note when they do it well and when they don’t, then practice.

That is what all good storytelling is about—practice.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Announcement: Speculative Fiction Writer's 101

What do Ken Scholes, Myke Cole, Stina Leicht, Michael J. Sullivan, Courtney Schafer, Teresa Frohock and J.A. Pitts have in common? They are all taking part in my first series of guest posts; Speculative Fiction Writer's 101.

While debating whether of not to do NaNoWriMo this year. (I've started, but am pretty far behind.) I thought to myself, wouldn't it be cool to have a few of the authors I've interviewed spend a little time talking about the craft of writing, but not in response to an interview question. I envisioned them taking a single aspect of the process of writing a story and sharing their thoughts on it. So I drafted up a list of topics, and set out to see if I could make it happen.

It's taken a little while and I realized that I've left a few topics out.(I'm hoping I can manage to get someone to fill in a few of the more obvious blanks before the series ends) but I am finally pleased to announce that starting tomorrow, I'll be posting a guest post every Friday from one of the generous authors who've agreed to help me out with this little project.

So stay tuned, and tell your friends.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Review of the Week: Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen King

With NaNoWriMo currently kicking my butt, I've found it hard to find the time to read let alone post a review. But since I promise one review a week, I went looking for something short to read and found something that I had been meaning to add to my collection for a while at a used book store while on a visit to Nashville. Stephen King has always been a favorite of mine, and I've read almost everything in his considerable body of work. Cycle of the Werewolf has been one of the holdouts, and I'm glad to report that despite its relatively short length, barely 100 pages, it's definitely worth the read. Adding to the presentation are the fantastic illustrations by Bernie Wrightson, best known for his work on DC Comics Swamp Thing.

Cycle of the Werewolf is the story of the small town of Tarker's Mills and the series of werewolf attacks that plague its citizens over the course of a year. King divides the larger story into twelve smaller short stories, one for each of the months of the year. It is reminiscent in structure to the much more popular The Green Mile, which was released in a similar format but with more significant content in each section of the story.

The first few chapters center on the victims, where King does an excellent job letting us slip into these characters' hearts and minds just moments before their grisly demise. These doomed townspeople are shown to be meaningful and at times you'll find yourself feeling sorry for the lives they have endured, or secretly pleased that they've gotten their just deserts.

We also learn about Tarker's Mills through the seemingly insignificant details scattered throughout the short chapters. King is a master of short stories, able to paint a vivid and meaningful scene in very little space. He wastes no words, often making phrases and descriptions pull double and triple duty addressing character, tone, and theme at the same time.

The werewolf meets his nemesis on July 4th in the form of a paraplegic boy, Marty Coslaw. Marty narrowly escapes being the monster's latest victim and is the first to confirm the rumors that a monster is terrorizing the town, rather than some deranged drifter or local psychopath. Not that anyone takes his account seriously, and he is left to fend for himself. When he discovers the creature is a well respected member of the community a few months later, he concocts a plan to rid Tarker's Mills of the monster for good.

Cycle of the Werewolf is not a complex story, the plot is basic and has very little of the twists and turns of King's longer works. But King's mastery of character and tone make it a work worth reading to anyone who enjoys a well crafted short story. Each 'month' chronicled in the larger arc has something to recommend it, and the way King builds tension, pathos, and setting layer by layer as we move closer to the inevitable confrontation between Coslow and the werewolf is a masterclass on how to do a lot with a little. The price is high, given the amount of actual content, but it is well worth picking up at a used bookstore. King has been awarded the prestigious Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and while Cycle of the Werewolf is not his most prestigious or familiar work, even in this more obscure and admittedly thin volume you can catch a glimpse at what makes him one of the most popular and celebrated authors in recent history.