About Writers, world-building, writing technique

How much world?

Alex’s Sci-Fi World by Matt Schaefer

I don’t write, or even read, much sci-fi, but I do have a trilogy planned that takes place on another planet. I don’t know if it qualifies as sci-fi since the inhabitants are as human-like as hobbits and face very human problems. Really it’s just an excuse for me to give free rein to my imagination by writing a story about humans without the constraint of respecting earthly reality.

But of course they inhabit a world which has other constraints, so I’ll have to decide how much of that world to describe. In other words, the world-building issue. We always have it, but a story set on earth can rely on shared assumptions about how the world operates. Not so on another planet, where we can make the world as we want, but then we have to replace those unwritten assumptions with explicit information. What will my inhabitants eat? How will they dress? Travel? Communicate? What are their towns and cities like? The list is almost endless.

Here are a few thoughts on the matter from some proper sci-fi writers:

Alastair Reynolds. My approach to world-building is a bit smoke and mirrors – there’s only as much as you need to carry the story. I think of it as one of those sets they used to have for cowboy films: the facades look good, but if you walk around the back, it’s all props and plywood. I don’t want to sound lazy, but I want to do as little as possible. I don’t need to know how the sewage system works to tell a story about someone on another planet.

Nnedi Okorafor. My stories tend to start with the characters. Then I look through their eyes (or however they “see”), minds, perspectives to observe the world. Typically this happens the moment the character exists. So I know the world not long after I know the characters. I walk through it, I smell the air, listen to the gossip, observe its insect world, hear its history through various perspectives, and so on … I experience it.

AnnLeckie. I try to choose details that are real – the whole of human history and culture is fantastically varied – and that seem to fit together. In real life, cultures and histories are full of things that contradict each other. There will be one common narrative of how things happen, how people live and eat and so on, but people won’t actually always do things that way. I try to include such moments, because it makes my world more three-dimensional. I also leave some things unexplained or just referred to, as though the world is much bigger than just this one story and won’t all fit in the pages.

Kim Stanley Robinson. I don’t like the term world-building. I’d say there’s no such thing – it’s a term out of a vocabulary that grew in writing workshops to help writers talk about the craft of fiction. But the writer should remember that these diagnostic terms are not what the reader feels while reading: the reader reads in a kind of dreamlike state in which the events of a story really happen. So the writer should focus on somehow forwarding the story. That’s the only imperative: make that “willing suspension of disbelief” go into action, and take the reader away.

These are just excerpts – the full article is here. It’s given me some useful pointers on how to set about it. But I’m sure you have others – whether you write sci-fi or not, how do you build your worlds?


Stories from the Golden Era of 2021

This is a time when people are separated only by thin monitors, information is but a Google away, and anybody can publish anything for immediate world wide distribution. 2021 is a golden era for writers. There are many possibilities -right now- to write the best your heart and mind can produce.

Pandemic-Flavoured Fiction (of course)
Ordinary people around the world are caught in an extraordinary disaster that threatens their health, their livelyhood, and those they love.

Science that goes, “Oops!”
Think everyday life descending into technological mayhem. 2021 is seeing tremendous advances in artificial intelligence, Mars exploration and genetically engineered “cures.” What can possibly go wrong?

Start with detailed world building and add in any manner of creatures with human foilbles, their romances and power games -who doesn’t enjoy escaping into the world of a good fantasy these days?

We love riddles and who-done-its bring out the best collaboration between the writer, the characters, and the readers. A good crime story is a masterpiece to pass on.

For horrifically great ideas, read the news.

Diversity Stories
Stories by writers who live on the same planet but in different worlds are a refreshing reality-check.

We who live in the Covid benefit from laughter. We who recognize madness find buffoonery cathartic. This is the time for new writers inspired by the insightful humor of Douglas Adams, Erma Bombeck, Mark Twain, Wanda Sykes, Woody Allen, Dorothy Parker, Garrison Keillor -hell, pick one and get busy writing. We need you.

This is no year to waste whining about anything. This is the year to write your best.


Writing and Research

by Michael DiMatteo

It’s easy to fall in love, really it is. Just find something that steals you’re heart, something your passionate about, and the rest takes care of itself. Simple, really. The part that’s hard is finding that something that steals your heart. As a writer (I’m still not sure I’m comfortable with that moniker as Hemingway, Dickens, Flaubert were writers – I’m more of a scribbler of thoughts and a wayward story teller), there are slightly less than a million ways one can go in search of something that truly pilfers your thoughts so thoroughly there is no recovery.

Most of the time I sit and pound away on my keyboard writing random thoughts, political meanderings that sometimes get published in Realclearpolitics (no, not a shameless plug, maybe), or begin stories that eventually peter out as a Chinese gong fades after the initial blow. They languish in my “bits and pieces” folder, frozen in time as Han Solo maybe to be revived at a later date, but more than likely not. They didn’t plunder my being and like a sometime lover, I got tired of them and simply left.

Then, on some Saturday morning, I sat down with my 6AM coffee to write as is my usual routine. For some inexplicable reason I told myself I was going to write a historical fiction novel – just like that – and then, again for some inexplicable reason, it poured out of me as an African cataract bounding over the cliffs in the southern Nile. I sat for two hours and wrote as though she, Apollonia Savucci, was speaking to me from a grave. I say “a grave” because she was an apparition from my mind. I have no knowledge if anyone by that name exists or existed, but whoever she was, she was speaking to me. I wrote down what she said, how she described losing her love to the plague in 14th century Italy and how she’d never recovered, her soul so damaged she had to flee the only home she’d ever known.

She began telling me about her distant family, where they came from and what they’d endured, and like an obedient servant, I wrote it all down. I found that I’d not been aware of some of the circumstances she was relating to me so I had to do some research. The more I researched the more besotted I became with her and her story, a story emanating from someplace deep in my subconscious. So, I researched location, weather during certain times of the year, food eaten, how people lived and what their homes were actually like. I discovered an entire world of the past this history teacher of over thirty years didn’t know existed. I became an archaeologist of time, brushing off an ancient world in a given space and age that once again became alive if only in my mind and on my computer screen.

I dug further and disinterred other families of power and influence during the period. I unveiled intertwined religions, and found that the tentacles of Italy stretched far further with greater influence than I’d ever thought. I found knights long dead coming back to life, and fictional characters interacting with them in ways I’d not imagined. I found people in love betrayed, and exposed heroism, all traits that existed then and now but with new life breathed into them by my fingers and keyboard.

I dug further. What did olive trees smell like? I found pictures of these places, now ruins but put back together by my imagination and by contacting professors who specialize in the time period. I reached out to a former student now a professor of Islamic history at UCLA who was more than happy to lend his expertise. He also gave me names of others who helped as well. I “cold emailed” a professor at Northwestern University who responded filling in a blank I had. I emailed others who didn’t bother to return my query – but no matter. I was, and am, undaunted. I was being eaten alive by this beast I’d unleashed and was loving every minute of it.

Volume one is completed. Revision has begun, beta readers have also been given copies. So far, the reviews are solid and the suggestions great. I’ve begun implementing some of them during the revision process and while I want it to be perfect, I know it will never be. There will always be something I can add, some other flavor to sprinkle in order to tantalize the readers’ tastebuds, but at some point, I’ll have to release the work to the greater world – or the five people that may choose to read it willingly. That’s ok – it’s the process not the result for me.

I’ve fallen in love with this world that once was and is now being recreated in historical fiction style. I’ve fallen in love with the process of writing and research. My heart has been stolen, my thoughts dominated by my work. None of this is to the detriment of my job for I have students counting on me each day whom I will never let down, but increasingly, I am losing ground to my writing. Good thing I retire next year.


That Novel I Mean to Write

Some novels simmer until, I dunno, something happens to spark them into being or nothing ever does. My simmering novel is about life as a medic during the Vietnam War. I thought I wanted to write about serving on the Intensive Care Unit at USAF Hospital Clark in South East Asia for a year and nine days – a record, the previous holder had been sent home strapped down to a stretcher. Me, I got tired of blood dreams and walked into the hospital commander’s office one morning over the objections of his secretary and plopped into the chair next to his desk. Luckily, Colonel Hernquist had people skills. He looked up from his paperwork and asked, “What can I do for you son?”

I told him who I was, where I’d worked for how long and that I was not going back there.

“Where would you like to work?”

“OB. It’s full of life.”

“Report to OB in the morning.”

I thanked him and left. (A year later, I was rousted out of a tent early one morning in Kwangju, South Korea -the North Koreans had just stolen our spy ship, the Pueblo. Me and three others were stood in a line and up walked some general officers and the Secretary of the Air Force, Harold Brown. Harold pinned some kind of medal on me “for saving lives, etc. while at Clark.” So, that year and nine days had been time usefully spent.)

The stories never go away. Hence, the simmering novel. Not just about the grisly but very much about how we coped. I ran with two other medics and we coped -well, probably the ways young men and women have always coped with casualties of war. Here’s one true example:


“I was taking a guy to x-ray in a wheelchair. Shot-up, just off a medivac. We go by the gift shop and he says, ‘Stop! See that nurse? I want to eyeball-fuck her.’” He shrugged. “I stopped.”

“Who was she?” Captain Kelly asked with bright humor in her eyes.

“Jenkins, from O.B.”

“Oh. That didn’t take him long then.” She turned serious. “I understand. You see death, you want life.” She pushed her chair from the table and looked at the floor while she sucked in a breath. Then she stood. “Back to it.”

He took in the blonde walking away. Kelly was on the dialysis team and regularly watched young men die because their kidneys had been left on the battlefield. When she was on call at night, Captain Kelly was notified by waking the doctor on call that night. He shook his head. Would he ever meet another woman he could tell this story? She would have to be the woman that Captain Kelly was.


Last week, my lady picked up the ringing phone and looked at me. “Do you know a David Miller?” And suddenly I was back there, in Clark Hospital in 1967. David Miller was one of the two that I ran with. He’s suffering from Parkinson’s now but his memory is sharper than mine. His wife found me and with her help, we are going to write some of our stories.