World Building: An exercise in creativity…

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Perhaps the most fun I’ve had in terms of writing have been those sessions where I worked to create a different world or a world within a world for a novel. For Flashback, a story where an historian tries to prevent an assassination in the past, I needed a way to deal with time-travel in a convincing way. When you write science fiction, if you don’t base your premise on plausible science, you’ll lose your audience before you start and receive countless notes on how you got it all wrong. The challenge, as an accountant by training and profession, was to learn several theories of quantum physics relative to the creation of an artificial wormhole. Physics anticipates their existence, but how do you make a credible one up? This is where the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of genius comes by. Men and women with an amperage of brainpower I will never possess have actually discussed how to get this done. I adapted the methodology into the framework of my story, created a few rules that the plot would have to live by and voilà; I had a secret world known to only a few dozen people and a science-based platform from which to launch my characters. In essence, the science (as science fiction requires) became something of a character in itself. As went the wormhole, so did the stakes for the characters. One of the lasting joys of that exercise – which took a month of reading and re-reading texts on quantum mechanics just to warp my brain around the concepts – was that I now have the foundation for an unlimited number of sequels.

My second novel, Alfheim, a story of a boy who is actually an elf (think more in terms of Legolas and not one who works for Santa) was a whole different challenge. Like a Harry Potter or Twilight, I needed to create a completely coexistent world to our own. I spent hours and hours in the library, reading and soaking up elements of mythology that suited the ethereal images that existed in my mind. Like an architect who chooses from a diverse spectrum of building materials to create the physical embodiment of his creation, I found threads of folklore that inspired me to flesh out the characters that were slowly coming to life in my head. Each discovery of some fascinating morsel forced new questions as to how or why that would work in the world that was emerging. This is the crucial point where it’s imperative to start writing down the rules, the parameters that will govern your world, for once you begin to write, everything depends on those boundaries. If you violate these rules, you will anger your reader and unwittingly introduce a deus ex machina along the way, something to avoid at all costs. In the exercise, I borrowed from Tolkien, from sources on Fairy and Elfin lore (Celtic and Scandinavian), Medieval shipbuilding techniques, Medieval clothing styles, castle structures, ancient Celtic names and words and their meanings and pronunciations, Irish history, American history, driving through the White Mountains of New Hampshire, but never once reading a book of similar genre until the book was completely done. Often, the advice is to read heavily in the genre you are interested in writing. Counter to this, I avoided it. I wanted the mythology and world building to be completely free of any other writers’ notions of what a fairy world is like (and there are many writers in the field).

The important things to remember in doing world-building are these: Create the rules for your world and stick by them, violate them only with a really good reason, make them as plausible within the expectations for the suspension of disbelief as possible, don’t be afraid to let your imagination run totally wild, and for heaven’s sake – HAVE FUN!

What if?

Submerged Selfie

Submerged Selfie

Nothing has ever been invented, ever discovered, or ever written that hasn’t been in answer to that question. I can’t speak for all writers, but when those two words cross my mind it usually means a trip through the worm hole or a peek through the key lock, and to quote Dr. Seuss: “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”

It’s true that I’ve had story ideas from the time I was a teenager, but they rarely went anywhere. Once, I had this great idea for a Civil War novel based on a ‘what if’, but that was before the internet, and I was living in a place devoid of libraries and books.

Red sands outside Riyadh

Red sands outside Riyadh

I’m fairly convinced that if the internet and the ability to do in-depth research at a keyboard had existed in the early 1980s, my writing career would have developed sooner.

In 1997, I was going through my underwater archaeology phase. I never lost the passion for it, but at this point it’s served only by reading articles about it. In March of that year, I was kneeling on a bed of sand, thirty feet below the surface of the Red Sea just off-shore a tiny uninhabited island called Black Assarca. In turn, this remote location was twenty-five miles off the coast of Eritrea in Africa. Under sixteen hundred years of sand and coral encrustation was a shipwreck of unknown origin, and we were painstakingly fanning layers and layers of sand away from the artifacts buried beneath from around the time that Rome was being sacked by the Visigoths. The Persians were fighting the Armenians, Attila was running around with the Huns, and the Vandals were beating up on Carthage – almost sounds like a normal day in the New York Times, today.

My Bedroom complete with spiders nearly the size of your fist

My Bedroom complete with spiders nearly the size of your fist

The Bathroom over an open hole to the sea. High tide was problematic

The Bathroom over an open hole to the sea. High tide was problematic

Anyway, on the first couple of days working in my assigned area, I uncovered three amphorae, sort of the ancient equivalent of Tupperware, only much bigger and heavier. I was excited; I was holding a vessel in my hands that had last been handled by some guy who thought of Rome the same way we think about the United States now.

Amphorae

Amphorae

Eager to continue, I went back the next day to my section and fanned away at the bottom, creating a swirl of sediment as thick as a nineteenth-century London Fog. What did I find? A stone block; even the fish are looking at it like: “Dude, you got a rock.”

My Block

My Block

The head archaeologist on-site scratched his head for a moment and told me not to worry, it was probably used for ballast. Undaunted, I went back to work. Then, out of nowhere – because that’s where it comes from, nowhere – WHAT IF? What if I uncovered something that just couldn’t be there, something unreservedly anachronistic? How would it have gotten there? Who would have put it there? Needless to say, I overstayed my bottom time and had to be brought back to reality by the dive tender banging a piece of rebar on the steel tub of the platform overhead.

Writers know that once the seed of an idea is planted, it germinates and gestates, twining its tendrils of imagination so firmly around the contours of your brain that if you don’t find a way of getting it out of your head, you’ll simply explode – yes, it’s an alien life-force. Three years later, however, the imagining of how that artifact got there became the opening scene in my first completed novel, Flashback. It’s ironic that what firmly planted my feet on the road to writing was writers block. Sorry, I had to go there. I dug up a block, get it? Never mind.

Flashback. One of these days it will be ready for release.

Flashback. One of these days it will be ready for release.

The point is, one must always allow the synapses of their brain to be open to any situation that begs the question: What if? Even if it doesn’t occur to you, just pick a few moments, look around and ask the question – you’ll never know what you’ll find.