Saturday, May 2, 2009

Welcome Jess Granger

It’s All in the Details

I’ve been told that the world building in my debut release, Beyond the Rain, is "massive." I have four distinct worlds, and about seven independent cultures . That’s a lot to pull out of the top of my head. The key with world building, is to use only what you need, but make sure that every detail makes sense in your world.

Let’s take one of my worlds, and break down some of the triumphs and pitfalls I experienced while dealing with that world. In Beyond the Rain, the heroine is from a planet called Azra. As part of the theme of my story, I wanted to toy with the idea of a completely feminine dominant culture.

Which brought me to my first question. Questions are the key to good world building. Once you have an idea, a string of questions should follow, and you have to be able to answer them. When you hit a question you can’t answer, that’s when you know something has to change.

So my first question was, "What sort of world would develop a culture where women are superior to men?" Drawing inspiration from the Amazons, I started to think about the jungle. On the ground, men have us outgunned. However, if we look at the differences between women and men, women have a lower center of gravity, better balance, and better flexibility than men. If women evolved in an environment where combat was arboreal, they’d have the advantage assuming their species had equal dexterity, and the women had good enough grip and upper body strength to live in trees.

That brought me to the next question. "How would the culture develop in a world where everyone lived in trees?" Well, assuming people would want to live as high on the tree as possible, having a vertical living structure would lend itself to a caste system. The higher you live on the tree, the higher class you are, with the poor and criminals living on the ground below.

This led to a string of new questions. How does living on the ground differ from the canopy? What sort of geologic land structure does the planet have that forces people into these trees instead of spreading out into more diverse ecosystems? What is their religion like? How is it tied to politics, and how is that all related back to the fact women are in charge and everyone lives in trees? If this is a warrior culture, what weapons do they have? Etc…

As each question came up, I had to develop an answer, and sometimes there were pitfalls. Part of developing a culture is to develop the vernacular language of that culture. I enjoy inventing new ways to cuss, and think it’s fun digging into my cultures to find their most shameful taboos and religious idioms then using them as cursing fodder. At one point, I decided that the culture of Azra would be hung up on mud. Since mud is from the ground, only the lowest of the low in their caste system would ever touch it. So their greatest insult is to call someone a mudbird, or a muddog.

Oh wait, oops. I decided to force people into the trees by developing this world as a string of small islands. Small jungle islands would not have large predators adapted to hunting prey on the ground, like dogs. So muddogs changed to mudrats, because a jungle island ecosystem could support rats.

From food, to weapons, to clothing, to metalworks and technology, everything comes back to the geology of the planet and the cultural habits developed because of the way people live on that planet. I’ve found the most useful source of basic knowledge for developing this kind of world is courses on cultural anthropology, geology, biology, evolutionary biology, and studying ecosystems. I also look at war throughout history, why it happens, what is at stake, and how it changes the cultures involved.

And once I sort through all of that, I’ve got a planet that feels real.

It isn’t easy, but it can be a lot of fun, like putting together a very intricate puzzle.

Jess' debut novel Beyond the Rain, published by Berkley, is set for an August 2009 release date. You can read an excerpt and some early reviews at her website. She also has a great blog so be sure to check it out. And remember Jess will be guest blogging again in August at which time she will share her writing journey.


Nayuleska said...

Thank you Jess for an insight into world building. I tend to make things up as I go along, so I'm taking notes!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for commenting, it's nice to meet you!

Believe it or not, I make most of my details up as I go along as well. Otherwise, I wouldn't get anything actually written. I'd just be sitting around thinking all day.

The trick is keeping your world building independent of your plot.

As you cruise along in your writing, details come up as you need them for your plot. The hard part is making those details fit into the puzzle you've already started putting together.

The most glaring holes I see in world building happen when the puzzle pieces don't fit because the author didn't ask why their world would have a certain habit, or use a certain thing, or make a certain product.

I had fun just recently figuring out the details of what an Azralen bedroom would look like in the high cities. I hadn't thought about it before, but it was fun creating a room that showcased the tree-dwelling nature of the people.

But that attention to detail can be used in any setting building. For example, if you have, let's say a western, where the setting is very remote, how does that show itself in the heroine's clothes.

Beyond being practical, the heroine's clothes are probably worn and patched, because I'm assuming she's not sitting around weaving cotton, and access to new material to make new dresses is limited.

I can't tell you how many times I've seen frontier women in books, and they mention the color and style of the dress, but the overall condition of the dress seems pretty good.


Captain Hook said...

Wow, Jess!! You really made me want to read this!

When's the release date?

*plans a day trip to the bookstore*

Nayuleska said...

I would read your book...but I'm afraid its not my genre. However, your insight is invaluable.

Before you commented, I honestly thought you sat down and created the whole world then wrote the story. Some people do that, and I admire them for it. It's just nice to find others like me, that's all. Most details aren't relevant unless I need them. Then I think about it a little. I love making up worlds though, and cultures.

If I can ask a question, what's your favourite part about writing?

Janet said...

You guys are at this bright and early this morning!

First, welcome Jess to The Prairies. It's great to have you bring us a different perspective of the romance genre. As I've said many times to our fantasy friends, I'm in awe of those that can not only create a story, but also create a brand new world in which that story takes place.

I'll be jumping in here and there today - but my first question is are you a plotter or a pantser? You mentioned to Yuna that your details are made up as you go along - I take that to be your a pantser. But since I've had the priviledge of chatting with you on RWA Online, I know you meticulous in your plotting. So do you employ a little of both? Always curious how other writers write.

Looking forward to our day.

Nayuleska said...

Well...I'm in England so its just gone 3pm now!

Anonymous said...

The book comes out August 4th, all the details are on my website. :)

world building is a little of a misnomer. It really is setting building.

I saw an example once. Someone mentioned Sherlock Holmes' study. It had all these objects in it, experiments, books, the old violin on a worn chair, and each of those things play a part on Holmes' world.

Real or imaginary, you have to pay attention to the details to create a really rich setting.

I am a heavy plotter because so much of my books are action/reaction oriented, and unless I figure those dynamics out beforehand, I'll end up in a ditch.

It's pretty common for some detail in chapter four having a huge effect on the events of chapter seventeen. If I don't know where I'm going before hand, I'd mess it all up. That's one thing I can't do in my head.

But when I meet a new character, or start a new race, I'll begin with only what I need to know. For example, the Hannolen race had a city on an asteroid because they worship the stars.

I didn't take that detail anywhere until later when I decided the reason they worship the stars is because they are nocturnal. Well, why are they nocturnal? People are omnivorous, so it isn't usually to our advantage to be nocturnal. If they live in a desert habitat, where their cities are in caves and they only come out at night, then they would be nocturnal. Hey, that gives them eyes that are over sensitive to light. And on and on it goes.

As I'm writing setting and character details, these questions come up on the fly. Sometimes I have to think about it for a while, but the little details I usually work on as I go along.

I don't know everything there is to know about Azra. I learned a lot more writing the second book, because the second book returns to Azra and digs deeper into the culture there.

I'm looking forward to writing another book on Azra where I can explore the sea environments on that planet a little, and the people who live in the mining colonies under the seas. That will be a fun world to build.


Nayuleska said...

Again, many thanks for taking the time for this post and the replies. Definitely appreciated.

Anonymous said...

My favorite part of writing is getting my characters into hopeless trouble.

I love sticking them in situations that get the heart racing. I love doing the world building, and watching my settings unfold as real places. I like feeling like I know the characters that inhabit them. It's like vacationing in a very exotic land.

But I really do like the action scenes. They are the most fun for me to write. My critique partner teased me once. She said I'm not happy unless someone is in mortal peril.


Nayuleska said...

I'm like that! I like killing at least one character off per novel. Characters can't have an easy life - I don't, so why should they?

Karyn Good said...

Hi Jess, welcome to the Chicks.

I popped over and read your excerpt, very interesting. How long did it take you to create and write Beyond the Rain? Is this book the first in a series?

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Karen,

How long it took to write Beyond the Rain really depends. I initially thought of the idea about five years ago. I wrote about eight chapters, then the book stalled and I stopped cold, had a baby, and about two years later decided to pick it up again.

That's when I figured out I've got to plot things out. I hooked up with my current CP, and we wrote a chapter a week. I got the first real draft done in just less than nine months, then it took another year after that to sell it.

It is the first book in the series, and I just finished the draft to the sequel.

Deb H said...

hi Jess

i greatly enjoy world building (or setting building as you prefer). i've never thought about the process i use, but you've explained and clarified it for me greatly. Thanks.

i'm off to go check out your website and exerpt. from what i've read here, i think i will really enjoy your book(s). hooray for you to have a series!

thank you for sharing with the Prairie Chicks. Aren't they grand?

Anonymous said...

They are grand. I'm very happy to be here. I hope you enjoy the excerpt. That first chapter is a wild ride.

Ban said...

i'm another who can get entirely lost in the process of world-building. think i've spent three times as much time on it as i have writing the actual story (if not a bit more) i think the best thing to remember about world/setting building is: even if you never disclose every detail about your world, your characters will know and it will affect the way they act ... you will know and it will affect the way you write. it adds depth that the reader will pick up on, even if they don't ask those same probing questions we do :D

Anonymous said...

That is absolutely true. There is so much about my worlds, I just never mention, because it would be literary clutter and slow my pacing, but I still have to know it to know why and how my characters do what they do, wear what they wear, curse how they curse, etc.

I've taken some of these little details and incoporated them into my intergalactic dictionary on the fun stuff page of my website. So if you want to know what a Yesulen means when they shout, "Ranock's Feet!" you can find out. :)

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Jess, your world is fascinating. My kids are imaginative and my youngest (10 yrs old) is writing his own book. He is inspired by the Erin Hunter cat and bear books.

So, I told the kids about your post and they're very interested.

My 18 yo daughter has a question for you:
Are there any men in your book?


connie said...

Hello Jess,
Welcome to the world of the Prairie Chicks. I'd say welcome to the prairies but the setting IS of this world - sort of - i.e. It is d____d cold.
I a retired journalist, so setting hasn't been part of 99.999 per cent of what I wrote. Now, however, it matters a lot! I am very new at non-fiction
Medieval romance writers build a new world with every story. Little of what we write has any relation to the area and authentic only in details of the era - such as clothing, weapons and what is on the table.
Your blog has set me thinking how to create settings much better than mine have been by determining the area (castle in western Highlands) and asking myself questions as you have suggested. I think it will work much better.
Travel through Scotland was an incredible experience. I love it there! But it has pros and cons in writing about it. The journalist in me wants to "Stick to the facts Ma'am. Just the facts." The romantic in me could go on for pages and pages describing the setting.
And I am going on and on right now too. I am delighted that you wrote a blog for us.
Wish you could come to the prairies some spring and create us a new world - which would be warmer! MUCH warmer.
Thank you

Anonymous said...

Hi Anita,

Did she see the one on the cover?


About the men, part of the fun with this book was I wanted to create a really terrible conflict for these two characters.

So I started with my rigid and controlled female Amazon warrior who by all direct accounts could be considered a nun.

Then my wicked brain got going and said, "Who could I set her up with that would completely boggle her world?"

Why someone that emits pheromones that can be used as sexual narcotics of course!

She can't ever allow herself to be touched.

He needs physical interaction with others to survive.

Toss them behind enemy lines where they have to work together as a team to survive and watch the fireworks.

You know, this book was really fun to write!

But that is all well and good, back to Azra. I couldn't neglect the role of the men on Azra. Sure, women are in control, but where does that leave the men? Do they accept their lesser role or do they balk against it? In what ways do they lash out at the authority? The first book dealt with the undercurrent of male hostility toward the governing women, but the second book really digs in to it.

Men are definitely part of the puzzle.

Anonymous said...

Hey Connie,

Thanks for the welcome. There's a lot of world building involved with an old castle in the highlands. It isn't a place most of us have been, so while historical authors have to turn to the books to answer their questions, they still have to ask the right questions.

Think about what resources are available to people when. What people inhabit the castle on a regular basis, what do they eat, where does the food come from, who takes care of hygiene and how, how long have the characters had control of the castle in their family, when was the last battle there, who died, how were they related? and on and on you go. some of that can be answered in a book, but some of it you can answer as you live in that medieval world for a while.

Janet said...

Well I went into the city to help my mom celebrate her birthday and do some chores around her house - and I see there's been a lot of fun here.

Great discussion. I really think that 'setting building' works for every writer (fantasy, futuristic, medieval, contemporary). It's like backstory - we need to know, the characters need to know, but our readers might not need to know everything.

I'm going to suggest to anyone interested - RWA Online offers workshops throughout the year and Jess is giving a month long session on POV. I believe it's in August (correct me if I'm wrong, Jess) and even if you're not a member, you can sign up for a minimal fee. I hope you come back, Jess, and fill in our readers.

Jess, you're working on a second book in the series. Will that be it, or will there be a third and fourth book? And anything else in the works?

Heather Massey said...

Thanks for taking us through your worldbuilding process! BEYOND THE RAIN sounds like it was both a lot of work and a lot of fun to write.

I loved the excerpt and am looking forward to the rest. I experience a surge of excitement when going on adventures in new worlds/civilizations. I like the unexpected aspect of that, as well as discovering how the romance will develop in such a scenario.

Blending good worldbuilding, confict, and a romance can be tricky, but is sublime when it all works together.

And I am forever indebted to you for the adventures of Ethel the Space Pirate--woot!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Janet! The online POV workshop will start in the beginning of October at

NYT Bestselling author, Angie Fox is doing the workshop with me. She writes first person, I write third, and between the two of us, we're going to have some fun with some creative homework assignments designed to help people understand and use deep POV to find their "voice."

I'm also having my first ever contest at Something Wicked. this Monday for a chance to win one of only two signed galley copies of Beyond the Rain.

There are only two out there in the whole world, and you could win one of them. That rocks. So head on over to Something Wicked to check it out.

And thanks for the Ethel, shout out, Heather. Ethel is the witty and unfortunate heroine of my interactive adventure story on my blog. Will she fall for the sexy intergalactic anthropologist who could help her crack the code to her grandfather's mysterious treasure map? Or does the dark and sinister mercenary hot on her tail have other plans? You decide every other Wednesday on the Butterfly Blog. A new Ethel posts this week, and you can read the entire story on the fun stuff page of my blog.

Okay, is there anything else I'm doing this week that I should promote?

Nope, I think that's it.

I have had so much fun as a guest blogger today. Thank you guys. I'm willing to answer questions so long as they keep coming. It has been a blast!

Anonymous said...

Shoot, about the series.

The second book is awesome! I can't wait for you guys to read it. I'm hoping that the series goes on for a really long time.

I certainly don't want to stop writing it.

I structured this series so I could go anywhere and do anything with the characters to give the series the most dynamic range of conflicts and possibilities I could muster. I didn't want it to go stale after a certain number of books because I was dealing with the same culture and the same problems with that culture over and over again.

So with a completely open universe before me, I'm looking forward to exploring all of it with my readers.

Janet said...

A contest, a workshop, a series - you are one busy woman, Jess. If there any more questions for Jess, feel free to ask them - we'll keep the forum open for as long as there are questions asked (and Jess is willing to answer them :)

I do want to give our thanks now. It's been a real pleasure having you visit with The Chicks today, Jess. I know I've learned a lot from you (here and over at RWA Online). I'm so glad you joined us today to talk about setting building.

Don't forget to mark your calendars. Jess will make a return appearance here on The Prairies on August 8th when she will share with us her 'call' story. I know I'm looking forward to that visit (and it's right around the release date for Beyond the Rain).

Thanks again, Jess.

Heather Massey said...

[...]She whips out her microscope to examine worldbuilding in It’s All in the Details[...]