World Building 101: a Redux

So, here’s the blog post I said I’d write about what happened at my world building workshop. But first I want to set up why I did this workshop and how it became something a little different from what I’d originally assumed it would be.  

I’d been asked to do a presentation ages ago by LSUS’s Write On group, and I’d been like, “Yeah, sure! I’ll figure out a topic later!” I’d thought of doing a big power point with pictures of my agency and my publishing company that I was going to take when I went to NYC in March. The problem with that plan was a) I forgot to take pictures and b) I can’t work power point.

So I was greatly relieved when the estimable Jaye Wells and Mark Henry, two UF authors extraordinaire and fellow Leaguers, invited me to help them wrangle a workshop down in Dallas on World Building. I was like, “Sweet! I can just steal their thunder! Like some ancient Greek demigod!” I do hope they don’t plan on chaining me to a rock where something eats my entrails for eternity. You wouldn’t do that to me, would you, guys? Right?

Anyway, the problem with me stealing their idea was that I didn’t know what World Building was. Again, for those of you who’ve stumbled upon me, I, in my turn, have stumbled upon being a writer. I have written and read all my life, but not in order to become an author of Urban Fantasy. I did it to become an Academic as I enjoy a good mortarboard and am a total masochist.  

So I went to the workshop and learned as much as everybody else did. But the funny, if inevitable thing, I learned was that I had totally world built, I just didn’t know the lingo. As I was researching Tempest Rising, I researched all the things you have to research to world build, and I had tons of pictures saved on my desktop that I could stare at for inspiration. I just didn’t know that  what I was doing had a name.

But it made sense to me to do it, at the time, because I was writing about a shit ton of stuff I hadn’t ever seen or done before. I’m not magic. I’ve never met a shapeshifter. Rockabill doesn’t exist. I’ve never actually seen the Old Sow. So I had to make it up in my head and, I figured, the more visual cues I had to draw on, the better.

So I knew exactly how I’d run an Urban Fantasy workshop on World Building. I’m a good teacher; it’s a concrete concept I can dig into, so no problem. But, except for one student, no one who was going to attend my workshop wanted to write fantasy. And yet, that didn’t bother me at all. Because I realized, as an urban fantasy writer, how much world building must go into more realistic genres of fiction. After all, the thing I had to research longest, and was most worried about getting “right” wasn’t the genies, or the magical powers, or the magical weapons . . . It was Maine. The “real” world. I can tell my reader that vampires are purple with grey eyes and only one arm coming from the center of their chest, and, if I set it up okay, a reader would have to concede that, in the world of my book, vampires are purple, etc. But Maine exists. People live there. Anyone can google it. If I screwed Maine up, I’d be foobarred.

And then I thought about the worlds of other books that are our world, certainly, but that are not. They are the world of their author; the world of their protagonist. I thought of Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth, one of my all time favorite books. That book is set in our world, and yet it’s utterly Portnoy’s world. I can see it the way he would see it. I can smell the cooking cabbage, see the glistening sheen on the liver draining on the cutting board, see his own sweat glistening on his forehead as he ponders what he’s just done to the family dinner. Similarly, in Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater, Mickey gazes at the carefully laid out gourmet breakfast spread that his well-off hosts have left for him on their kitchen table. It is just a collection of jams and pastries and cereals, and one pre-segmented grapefruit-half wrapped in cellophane, but Mickey sees the poignant, and ultimately fruitless, detritus of a wealthy man’s attempt to gain immortality and peace through Healthy Living. It is just a single image of a breakfast table, but it’s also a still life, a tableau of modernity that slices away the layers of our domestic comforts to give Roth’s reader an indication not only of our own human condition but of Mickey’s condition. We helplessly see what Mickey must helplessly see at all times, all around him: the proof that we must die and that we must live fearing our own death, the condition which Roth calls our human stain.

So we all world build, to some extent. I know that an author like Philip Roth has never, outside of kindergarten, sat with a bunch of magazines and cut them up in order to make a montage. But he’s still world building.  Since he’s a genius, he gets to skip a few steps. But I need all the help I can get, so pass the scissors and glue.

On that note, when I went into the workshop I went armed with a bunch of magazines, some scissors, and the handout you see in the preceding blog post. I introduced the topic, just as I did in the handout, and then I instructed the class to cut out a single image from their magazines that fit with their current project or, if they didn’t have a project, fit with their visual understanding of a favorite book.

Everyone got really into it, and came up with some really great pictures. The student who’s working on a UF idea found a shampoo add with a woman who has flowers for hair. He thought it was a great idea for one of his fairy characters, and we all wholeheartedly agreed. 

Another student is working on a series of short stories about a family’s holiday. She picked out this postcard perfect photo of a beautiful home, covered in snow, that looked like something Thomas Kinkade would paint. When it came time to explain why that image reached out to her, she explained that the matriarch of this family was cold and forbidding and perfect, and that everyone dreaded these family holidays. So I latched onto the eery perfection of the house, with its snow sprinkled all over it in perfect waves as if even Nature was afraid of upsetting the woman who lived there. And my student mentioned these things, but she also brought up the lights in the windows, explaining how they represented, for her, how there was warmth and love at the center of this family, despite all the surface dysfunction. It was a wonderfully symbolic little tableau of a tense, but ultimately loving, family dynamic.

In a final example, another student of mine is working on a fictionalized memoir of her own family. Rooted in the deep south, the work will span pre- and post-Civil War themes. This student latched onto an image from a Marks and Spencer’s add, which had a really beautiful woman in a beautiful long dress sitting in a sumptuous boudoir. My student talked about how the dress, especially all the detail at the bottom of the very fancy skirt, reminded her of the antebellum South. I used this as a great example of how you can take an expected image – the finery of the antebellum Southern Belle – and make it unexpected, and more symbolic. A skirt like that would have gotten dirty very quickly, one would imagine, around the sweeping expanse of its hem. The intricate beading would have brought the spectator’s gaze downward, over all that intricate beauty, to a thin crust of dirt along the very bottom hem. Symbolically, this dirt would represent what bought such finery (slave labor), but also what the entire Belle system was based upon. After all, imagine being a woman who was honored and lauded as an icon of femininity to be preserved and cherished (at least in popular song), but whose own father and her own husband could, quite possibly, have fathered dozens of bastards by raping slaves? Such beautiful, pampered ladies could have been sired by and married to a rapist, and the physical proof of both their adultery and their barbarism would be embodied in children, slave children, who one has the right to sell at auction. The dresses may have been wicked pretty, and the boudoirs wicked sumptuous, but you don’t gotta be William Faulkner to see that things were seriously rotten at the core of Plantation society. So I used her picture as an example of how you can riff on an image in an unexpected way. Of all the possible images to discuss in the photo, she focused on the skirt, which I thought was interesting. And so I asked, “Why is she focusing on that?” Asking yourself such questions might lead you to your next riff.

All in all it was a great workshop, and I know that I learned a lot, even if nobody else did. I realized how important world building is for everyone, not just sci fi/fantasy writers, and how visual images can help so much with one’s writing, especially with sensory language. People struggle with sensory language, but it’s so much easier if you have something in front of you that you can imagine tasting/touching/smelling. Something of which you can see the colors, and how they swirl together or offset one another or clash.

So world building is, as Martha would say, a good thing! 


4 thoughts on “World Building 101: a Redux”

  1. I just love these posts!

    I've written 3 UF novels and am working on a 4th. Worldbuilding is always the most difficult part for me. I think, after reading your posts, it's because I don't know what questions to ask myself. Next time I run into a snag, I'm definitely going the picture route. Scrivener even has where I can make files associated with my MS. 😀


    (posted here instead of at Twitter because I had more to say)

  2. Thanks, Driftsmoke! What is Scrivener? Sounds awesome!

    And I prefer people post here, as I know I'm guaranteed to respond. I don't always catch everything on Twitter. I'm rather technologically challenged. 🙂

  3. Nicole==I don't know how to work links here, but google the words "literature and latte + scrivener" to see. Scrivener's a type of software designed for writers. I truly love it. The only drawback is that it's for Mac users only.

    A similar program for PCs (I've heard) is Liquid Story Binder. I've also heard quite a few complaints about LSB, so be sure to do the free trial before you buy if that's your cup of tea.

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