Balance: Narrative, World Building, and Backstory

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Progress on my latest version of book two in the Swords & Shields series is going very well.  I’ve done some major cutting and rewriting over the past year and it’s vastly improved the book.  My latest task in the revision process is to add back in a little bit of a planning scene and it’s gotten me thinking about the balance every author has to strike between their narrative, world building, and character backstory.

In this equation, the narrative is by far the most important.  That is the story you are telling right now.  The rest doesn’t really matter if the narrative gets lost.  Character backstory can also be important, but a little can go a very long way most of the time.  World building information has been my struggle with book two.  Because this is a modern day fantasy there’s some terminology that’s not familiar to the average reader, so I’m having to include enough context for readers to pick up on the meaning on the new words.  This goes well enough for vocabulary, but world building can come in many forms.

World building includes everything about your world.  Why do people act as they do, live where they do, or have the jobs that they do?  How is society structured?  Even a setting that is largely based on our own reality relies on world building to define certain relationships and facets of the world.  Social and political relationships can be especially tricky to properly describe to readers.

As an author, I’m trying very hard to make sure that the narrative is getting the proper treatment as the primary part of the novel, while not excluding so much of the world building that readers get confused.  That can lead to some very specifically designed scenes, which is not my strong suite as a writer.  I much prefer to let the scenes evolve and grow with the story rather than write something very specific to fill a very specific hole.  If I’m lucky, my readers will never be able to pick out which scenes are the ones I’ve struggled to add in and which ones I’ve whittled down from earlier more rambling versions.

I’d love to hear how you strike a balance between your narrative and the world building and backstory.  It can be a struggle to get the balance exactly right in any given book so I’m always looking for new ways to look at the problem and new techniques to try out.

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The Worlds I’ve Created: Alimonhal

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World building is one of my favorite parts of the writing process.  I adore coming up with all the rules for the magic, the names for the places, and the different kinds of people that you’ll discover in my world.  A good 90% of my world building doesn’t even appear in a book anywhere, it’s just fascinating information I have to draw on as I’m creating new stories in that world.

With NaNoWriMo on the horizon, I’ve been looking back through some of my older work for inspiration, and I thought I’d share a bit with you about one of my oldest worlds.  Like many of my worlds, there are many stories I’ve written there, but none of them have ever made it out of my computer for very long.  There’s one world in particular that I’m incredibly fond of, but may never publish a story in.  This was my very first complete world building experience.  I called it Alimonhal. Continue reading

The Joy of a New World

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Writing has been an important part of my life since I was in middle school.  Creating characters and the events they encountered has been one of my favorite things ever since I started that very first story.  I started out writing things I knew.  I set my stories in the real world and added elements as I needed.

After more than two decades at this, my world building is a little more sophisticated.  I plan the world of the story so that it can help drive the narrative, motivate the characters, and sometimes so it can be a character in its own right.

I’ve been working on my series for several years now, and developing the world it’s set in.  You can find more about that world specifically in my post about how the setting came to be.

Recently, I’ve been working on a new project, and I’ve rediscovered the joy that comes with world building. Continue reading

Behind the Book: Strong Fort Spathi: Setting

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Since this is the first installment of “Behind the Book” I’ll give you a brief idea of what to expect from this and other posts in the series.

Behind the Book posts will be about what went on in the process of writing the book I’m talking about.  Where did the setting come from?  Where did I find the inspiration for my characters?  How did I keep all the ideas organized?  How did I develop the magic system?  Or the rules for the different paranormal races?  Or whatever new and interesting thing I had to create for that novel?

This first one is going to talk about where the setting for Strong Fort Spathí came from and how it grew into what it is now.

Strong Fort Spathí is set in Fort Madison, IA.  This is actually a real town, but I use it fictionally.  To explain how I got to the finalized version of the fictionalized Fort Madison, we’ll have to go through a couple different works in progress (WIP).  I first developed the setting for a NaNoWriMo project about a character named Catherine.

I spent a ton of time in October world building for this story.  I created vocabulary to go with the vampires and shape shifters and even the witches and the fae.  I figured out how all the magic systems worked and invented a new timeline for the world that started back in the 1920s.  Then I started plotting out the physical setting.

I wanted a place that was near St. Louis because of some plans for that story about Catherine, but I didn’t want it set in the city proper, so I got on Google Maps and hunted around for the right size city in the area I wanted.  I found Fort Madison, IA.

For that original story, I saved screen shots of the maps from Google and started adding in buildings and places of my own.  There was Victorian Circle and the Zoo Quarter where the vampires and zooanthropes were known to be found, and I planned out where the university I had created would go.

I was very excited, and then November 1 rolled around and I got to writing.  And then I decided I didn’t like the direction, and started over.  And then I did it again.  None of the three starts I made that November went anywhere.  They still haven’t.  But I still had this rich world I’d created around Fort Madison, and Black Ashe University that I’d built there in my October planning.

So when a new idea came around for a character named Jordan and his missing best friend Sinikka, I had a wonderfully rich world to set it in, complete with existing maps and vocabulary lists.

I fine-tuned a few things.  Victorian Circle doesn’t exist yet, but I might be able to create it in the course of the series.  I backed off on the idea of the Zoo Quarter, since the zooanthropes in my new story weren’t as out and proud as my last set, but it’s an idea I can go back to later on.  I did keep Black Ashe University.  Even if it’s not overtly mentioned in Strong Fort Spathí, it’s definitely still there, and will play a role in later books.

So for this story, my setting started with a real place, and grew with the alternate history I developed for my paranormal world.  The process is organic.  There are things I have written down that haven’t made it into a story yet, so they can still grow and change as the stories develop.  Being adaptable with the background information that hasn’t come up in the stories yet is something I’ve had to learn over the years, but it’s an immeasurably valuable skill to have when writing a longer series of stories.  You have the facts that are set in stone, because you told your readers, but the rest are still flexible.  I’m looking forward to seeing how the setting continues to grow and change, as well as expand, as I continue the Swords and Shields series.

If you’re a fellow writer, where do you find inspiration for your settings?

For everyone else (and probably the writers too), what do you think about authors using real places for their setting versus completely fictionalized settings?  What about the “New Amsterdam” type of setting, where we all know it’s NYC but the author calls it something else?