Our relationship to Earth
determines what we eat, what we wear, how we live, even the shape of our bodies, in short everything about us. As writers we can focus on portraying human relationships and hope the setting will take care of itself, big mistake. To maintain plausibility every component of the story should have consistency with the world of the story. I used a bottom up approach to world building, working from the needs of the plot to the architecture of the imagined world.
1. Seed idea.
Ever story grows out of a seed idea, something which is so wonderful that it must be shared. My stories grew out of a dream of a woman fleeing by moonlight, a child in her arms.
2. What plot works best?
Most stories use a combination of basic plots. The writer simply matches seed idea to appropriate plot combination.
Tragedy -- Things go from bad to worse.
Comedy -- An absurd problem is solved in an absurd manner.
Romance -- Individuals fall in love and attempt to overcome differences.
Mystery -- The cause of a crime or other event is uncovered.
Epiphany -- Significance is found in ordinary life.
Disaster -- An attempt is made to avert or overcome an unfortunate event.
Adventure -- A visit to a strange place.
Agency/Hero's Journey -- Someone discovers something which could save society.
3. What sort of society is necessary for the plot?
The long-lost-heir plot often features patrilineal kingship and rule by divine right. God favors the legitimate first-born son and gives him the right of absolute rule.
I have deep-seated dislike of divine right, so I wanted another way of proving kingship. I decided a hereditary queen would nominate and marry the king. Such a society would be matrilineal, inheritance passing from mother to daughter. Given this, I know the royal child of my story is a girl. As an adult, she faces the challenge of selecting the next king. This setup as has the makings of a nice romance.
4. What environmental forces are necessary for the society?
Society develops and adapts in response to the basic human needs for shelter, air, water, food, and access to mates. Knowing the resulting society, the writer can backwards engineer climate and terrain. It helps to think of shortage. I learned this from Frank Herbert's Dorsadi Experiment which has a world with a shortage of toxin-free food and water.
I settled on a lack of shelter as the driving need on Fenria, my imaginary planet. On Fenria, fierce tides and weather lead to a high death rate at sea. In response, the society has a taboo against women fishing and operating boats. As a result, females live longer and society invests in women's education at the expense of male education. On Fenrian, men are expendable. Fenrian doctors, lawyers, teachers, and engineers are female. Voila! A matriarchal society.
5. What kind of cosmology will produce the shortage?
Cosmology can be thought of as the rules for how a universe functions, or as rules for a magical system. For a story to have conflict, nothing in the world should be for free. Without cost there's no conflict, no social development, and no story. Cosmology should have built in costs.
Every long-lost-heir must prove his identity. Oedipus Rex has damaged feet and Harry Potter has his scar. Standard devices for proving royal identity include special marks, scars, magical talismans, or feats demonstrating the favor of the gods. My distaste for divine right eliminates most of these. I settled on technological solution, a neurological implant which opens doors in the palace, but which also can be infected with an electronic virus. Thus, my story fits within a scientific cosmology.
I prefer scientific cosmology because the scientific laws of thermodynamics already have costs. I can still have my hereditary queen without any additional work of developing a complete magical system.
6. What genre best fits the story?
Where to shelve a book depends mostly on the publishing market. I believe most stories straddle genres, containing plot elements from multiple genres or combining a plot favored by one genre with a cosmology favored by another.
My story has science and technology integral to the plot making it science fiction, but it also focuses on a romantic relationship. This combination makes the story SFR, science-fiction romance. It's up to me to decide if I will pitch the story as science fiction or as romance.
I feel that leaving the decision of genre for the end gives the writer the greatest range for creativity and freedom while still producing consistency within a story. I believe that all stories, even realistic stories, can benefit from bottom-up world building. Thinking about the world necessary for the plot can help determine where to set the story and what details of setting should be included or excluded.
Lizzie Newell lives in Alaska and writes science fiction set in a maritime world. She has written a half dozen novels and hopes to publish them soon. She expects her novella, Sappho's Agency, to be available first. Her novel, Princess Politkofsky, which she mentions in this article, is about a princess who returns to her planet to save it from an electronic virus and then falls in love.
More information on Lizzie Newell's writing can be found at http://www.lizzienewell.com. She has founded Northern Speculative Fiction, a website http://www.northernspecfic.org/ and Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/pages/Northern-Speculative-Fiction/ dedicated to speculative fiction writers living in Alaska and Yukon.
photos are of models
and drawings made
by Lizzie Newell as
part of her