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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Driving the Bus (a.k.a. Building your World)

Please welcome guest blogger Maria V. Snyder

I’ve been asked about my world-building techniques a few times in the past, and today I sat down and really thought about how I came up with the Territory of Ixia for my first book, POISON STUDY.

I realized that I didn’t invent my world ahead of the story or the characters. Many authors will draw maps and have extensive histories and politics before populating their worlds. Not me. Nope. I started with a character…Yelena, the food taster. And at first the world was going to be a monarchy, based loosely on the Middle Ages. But we all know…or rather all of us fantasy readers/writers know…that type of setting has been done to death. I had an unique character for fantasy, so I should have an unique setting…right? Right!

So if I wasn’t going to have a monarch, who was in charge of this world? I could have chosen a president, a sultan, a powerful magician, a council of elders, a mad man, a mad woman, a god, or a demi-god. Instead, I chose a military dictator and he is rather paranoid about being poisoned (otherwise, why have a food taster?). Why is he paranoid? He became the Commander of Ixia, by having the King and all his Dukes assassinated. It worked for him, so why wouldn’t it work for someone else unhappy with the status quo?

I really liked my military structure, it has a built-in ranking system, lieutenant, captain, colonel, etc.. I split the world into 8 Military Districts with a General in charge of each. I also liked having my characters..or rather all the citizens or Ixia wear uniforms that are color-coordinated to each district – a great technique for the writer who doesn’t like excessive description (i.e. lazy!). My Commander was also a big fan of utilitarian décor and no excess stuff around. So his officers all worked in one big room at clean/organized desks. (I’ll also note that I attended 12 years of Catholic school and wore a uniform for 12 years. I loved it – no worry about fashion, or making a decision at some un-godly hour of the morning—which is anytime before noon IMO).

Back to my food taster. Why would she want to be a food taster? She wouldn’t, unless forced or paid an outrageous salary. My Commander was turning into a pretty fair-minded gent and I couldn’t see him forcing a loyal supporter or risking one either. What if she was on death row, ready to be executed and the Commander offers her the job. She has a chance to live. That’s sounds good…except… What keeps her from running away at the first opportunity? And the other tricky question, Why is she on death row? I don’t think readers will be able to connect with a murderess. She would have to have killed someone to get on death row. Who does she kill? And Why?

Can you see where this is leading? My world grew from the answer to these questions. Basically, world-building consists of these three things:

-Asking questions

-Answering the questions

-Revealing the answers

Now back to the Commander – he is a black and white type of guy. You kill someone, you are killed…end of story. No, don’t try and tell him it was in self-defense, he feels human life is sacrosanct and won’t tolerate such weak excuses. So my girl is in prison for killing someone, perhaps in self-defense (readers don’t find out until page 346 or so ;), when she’s given the job. Now the tricky one – how to keep her in place? Poison her, was the answer. Make her show up for work to get a daily antidote to the poison in her body or she’ll die. Makes clocking in seem….lame doesn’t it?

And my world just kept growing as more questions arose as I wrote. Now this technique will not work for those writers who have to outline and make all these decisions before writing. Those unfortunate…er….plotters as we call them in the biz. I’m a pantser (as in seat-of-the-pants-dear-god-I-hope-this-works-out type).

Here’s the funny thing about my world. My sister had worked at a company that has a clean-desk policy, where they all wore uniforms (even the plant manager), where they all worked in cubicles (even the plant manager), and no one had a special parking space…sound familiar?? My sister read POISON STUDY and laughed. Seems my world of Ixia closely resembled her work environment. Guess I admired the fair way all her colleagues were treated and I subconsciously turned it into Ixia. (everything writers see, hear, and do are all fodder for that subconscious!)

Back on topic – for those who need to build the world first, good luck. Just kidding :) Some advice would be to not spend months and months or even years, perfecting your world, because what you’re doing is procrastinating. Yep, you are. Don’t argue with me, because I’m right about this. Writing is hard and using the excuse of needing a perfect world just won’t fly. So do a bit of research and then get the dam…er….story started. You can always fill in the blanks as you come to them.

Your character is driving the bus (so to speak) and you’re providing the roadway as he/she goes. As a pantser, the best part of writing is finding those unexpected surprises around the corners :)

Maria V. Snyder switched careers from meteorologist to novelist when she began writing the New York Times best-selling Study Series (Poison Study, Magic Study and Fire Study) about a young woman who becomes a poison taster. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Maria dreamed of chasing tornados and even earned a BS degree in Meteorology from Penn State University. Unfortunately, she lacked the necessary forecasting skills. Writing, however, lets Maria control the weather which she does in her Glass Series (Storm Glass, Sea Glass, and Spy Glass). Maria also earned a MA in Writing from Seton Hill University where she is now one of the teachers and mentors for the popular fiction writing program. Her latest novel, Inside Out is her debut young adult science fiction. The book is about a society living in a metal cube who has lost track of what is outside their world.


About to be executed for murder, Yelena is offered a reprieve. She'll eat the best meals, have rooms in the palace, and risk assassination by anyone trying to kill the Commander of Ixia. And so Yelena chooses to become a food taster. But the chief of security, leaving nothing to chance, deliberately feeds her Butterfly's Dust, and only by appearing for her daily antidote will she delay an agonizing death from the poison. As Yelena tries to escape her dilemma, disasters keep mounting. Rebels plot to seize Ixia and she develops magical powers she can't control. Her life’s at stake again and choices must be made. But this time the outcomes aren’t so clear!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great ideas, Maria. I'm about to start a new world, so it's very timely. Yes, I'm more of a plotter, but I think your questions technique will help me, too.

Thanks again.


Karin Shah said...

I adore Poison Study! A fabulous book! Great examples, Maria!
(Wow, this is a lot of exclamation points*g*!)

Thanks for a great read!

Unknown said...

It's such a fascinating concept - its almost the same dichotomy as the outliners and the 'pantsers'! - I speak, of course, about those that create hugely detailed worlds and control their characters completely, or those that let the characters 'drive the bus' as you say, and the writer creates the road that unfolds in front of them.

I just read a completely opposite post on a blog about Tolkein and how to not rip him off, while at the same time doing what he did! In it one of the established authors (forgot name) told how he completely maps out every single detail of his world, and if the characters don't conform to what he wants them to do within it, he changes their history until they do.

Does the setting drive the character? Or does the character drive the setting?

While your approach sounds great, I would say in defense of those who create worlds in detail - one reason to do that is to examine a particular theme. For me, the world that I create is required to have certain elements because I have an axe to grind about the contemporary world, and I want to create something that is not recognizably Our Contemporary World, but contains certain things - like 'celebrity' and a manipulative political cabal ...

One of the things to admire about Tolkein is that the political situation he envisioned is timeless. Readers can superimpose WWII and Hitler analogies, Vietnam war analogies - the list goes on and the decades unfold.

I'm sure you can get there by letting the characters drive the bus. But it is not the only way.

Though I should note that Tolkein himself got a start when he had a vision of a 'hobbitt.' That was the beginning of the whole thing!