Creating a Believable Fictional World

Creating a Believable Fictional World

When it comes to writing fiction, many authors sweat the small stuff. “Do I have what it takes to write realistic dialogue?” they wonder. “Am I creating a believable fictional world?” Or, most dire of all, “Will anyone care about my books?”

These concerns are all understandable and valid. But if you’re well-read, you work hard, and you have a solid comprehension of the fundamentals, you shouldn’t have to worry about those things. I know I don’t.

Last month, I wrote about how I’ve always had a natural ear for dialogue. And a couple weeks ago, I posted about my love for character-driven novels. Over the next few weeks, I plan to post about some of the things I view more as challenges than strengths.

Before I do that, though, I’ve got one more post about “where I think I excel,” and this is it. It’s all about creating a credible fictional world.

 

Fact or fantasy?

So, it probably helps that I don’t typically write what you would call genre fiction. My first three novelsBrothers’ Hand, Jana, and Miles of Filesall fit loosely into the Literary Fiction category. When you write litfic, you don’t really worry about world-building too much. Literary fiction typically takes place in the real world, and if you can’t approximate that, you’ve got no business writing fiction.

If, on the other hand, you write something that fits comfortably into a particular genre, that’s a different story. My new novel, Whizzers, fits into a couple of categories, such as Metaphysical & Visionary Fiction, and Time Travel Fiction.

Luckily for me, I didn’t have to create a truly science fiction-type (read, weird) world for this novel. Much of it takes place within the realm of my own experiences, or experiences I imagined. And the rest came intuitively, in writing sessions that tapped into my subconscious mind. Sure, I had to research a few historical things, but it wasn’t back-breaking work.

 

How it works

For a writer who takes it upon herself to create a world that truly fits the science fiction or fantasy category, it’s a different situation. You can find many articles on this topic online. A quick Google search yields an article called 7 Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding, for example. The author gives numerous good advice, from avoiding one-dimensional characters to making sure superpowers make sense.

Of course, you have to take things like setting, pacing, story structure, and character arc into consideration. But many of these things can happen organically if you surrender to your own creative process, then edit with a cold eye for where to improve. That’s my experience, anyway.

Next week, I’ll be featuring more on story, but I’d like to know what you think. And if you’re of a mind to check out Whizzers, there’s a special offer on the table: all readers who pre-order and send me a screen shot of the pre-launch receipt are eligible to receive some exclusive bonus material that’s only been available to the launch group thus far.

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The Glories of Language: Making Stuff Up and Other Fun Things I Do

The Glories of Language: Making Stuff Up and Other Fun Things I Do

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” – Pablo Picasso

 

One thing I was never especially afraid of was breaking the rules. What I was afraid of was getting caught.

When I was young, I got into a tiny bit of trouble, but not much. Frankly, I didn’t like getting in trouble; I wanted to have my fun, go home, and have that be the end of it. I didn’t want trouble.

 

Throwing Out the Rulebook

When it came to my studies, I did well—always. So when I started getting into creative work, I wasn’t afraid of breaking the established rules of grammar or punctuation. I pretty well mastered them on a pro level—combining an advanced English degree with years of experience as a full-time writer—and that meant I felt confident taking Picasso’s advice to heart.

That includes just flat out making words up when necessary.

The first time I know for sure that I made one up was in Brothers’ Hand, my first novel. Jerome Brothers loses his dominant hand in a tragic fall, then, as the blurb says, “falls even harder for his therapist.” (See what I did there?) Now, there are only so many ways you can use the words hand or arm or residual limb in sentences without sounding repetitive. And at a certain point, I had to put myself firmly in ol’ Jerome’s shoes.

When his relationship with the therapist turns romantic, it’s awkward and scary for him to have any kind of physical experience. When you make up a word, it’s not a bad idea to put it into a context where it’s automatically understood. In this case, I suspect many readers wouldn’t even have noticed.

He clasped her to him, his right arm behind her clumsily, as if it were aware of its own clumsy handlessness.

 

Getting Even Bolder

With the artistic triumph of Brothers’ Hand behind me, I went on to the far greater challenge of Jana. This second novel was much longer, told from the more difficult first-person POV, and dealt with the thorny subject of sexual discrimination against the LGBTQ community. Who wouldn’t feel empowered to make up words in such a challenging context?

In truth, I only did it once in that book, as far as I can recall. I had a sense that Jana’s father, Thomas, would stare at her through thick glasses like an owl. Upon looking it up, however, I found no word for owl-like in my paperback dictionary (this was 1994, before we all had computers). There was a word for pig-like (porcine), for dog-like (canine), for cat-like (feline), and so on. No owl-like. So I read the etymology listing and found that owl came from the Old English ūle. Thus was born the word ulemic.

In the end, though, I think I chickened out, no pun intended. I can’t find any evidence of the word even in my pre-editor manuscript, so I don’t know what happened. But I still want to use it somewhere if I can get away with it!

 

Backtracking, but Only A Little

Once I got to my third novel, Miles of Files, I was looking for something a little more commercially palatable…or at least, more accessible. I still had the occasional urge to describe a character in animal terms, and Mac Flambet wound up being the perfect target:

Of course, the hair he smoothed down was not too thick, receding back farther and farther from the high colubrine forehead and the small cold eyes like the eyes a taxidermist would use, slick and dead-looking.

Looking back, I knew the word colubrine meant snake-like, but wasn’t sure if I’d made that one up, too. But no, it turns out it’s actually a word—in the dictionary and everything!

My latest novel, Whizzers, doesn’t have any invented words, as far as I can recall. There are at least one or two made-up names, though. And I faced plenty of challenges writing it, from the autobiographical nature of much of the material to the not-so-autobiographical elements like time travel. Here’s hoping that my next project has its share of challenges but also feels comfortable enough for me to break a few more rules along the way.

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Today’s post might look like a lazy man’s blog, because I’m copying and pasting lyrics into it from other sources. But the fact is, lyrics have always played an important role not only in my life, but also in my novels.

I never gave this much thought until recently, quite frankly. I’ve got a new novel coming out next monthas you can see from the cover reveal image rollout aboveso I’ve got to get some blog posts done in advance. Or at least have some blog topics planned ahead. In my planning process, I put together a little list of things I’m good at, and character is one. I covered that last week, and dialogue the week before. The use of lyrics, my third item on the list, comes this week.

 

The Brothers’ Hand Lyrics

I’m something of a rock and roll writer, I think. I’ve said as much, even in interviews. But I also listen to a lot of jazz, and that’s informed some of my work as well. From a rhythmic standpoint, I feel like Brothers’ Hand is a rock novel, while Jana is much more jazz. Miles of Files seems to combine the two to some degree. And the upcoming release, Whizzers, has almost an ambient feel to it, in my mind.

In my reflections on this, I realized that I’d been writing lyrics for ten years longer than I’d been writing novels. I started writing poems and songs in 7th or 8th grade, and filled notebooks with them. But I didn’t sit down and determine that I’d actually put some of those lyrics into most of my novels until it was almost time to write this post.

Brothers’ Hand, a novel informed by the rhythms of rock, features a few of these lyrics. The difference between these lyrics and those in my other books is that some of the Brothers’ Hand lyrics were created especially for the book. Here’s one example:

 

So I tied off, baby,

Wouldn’t ya like to try it too?

‘Cause there’s a whole lotta flashin’

When the brown horse is crashin’

Through your brain like a Subaru.

 

However, there are other lyrics in that novel that came from songs I wrote earlier, like these:

That’s the place that’s better,

Where I can just forget her

And let the wound heal.

 

And:

 

Promises as empty as the tear that never dries,

Promises as empty as the cloudless summer skies.

 

Lyrics In Jana

Because Jana comes from a woman’s POV, I didn’t try to put much of my own art into the book. It was challenging enough to just write the thing. But there is one scene with Jana and her partner, Danielle, where Danielle sings in front of some people at a coffeehouse, and the lyrics come from a song I’d already written. I didn’t change the title, Pop Song, but I created a fake band name, Swinging Porters. Hope no one’s used that one yet.

 

He was tired of taking chances

And she was looking for romances

They were waiting for advances

But the chemistry wasn’t right.

 

So they sat like statuettes and

Studied both their silhouettes and

Felt like they were marionettes and

Probably they were right ….

 

I took a bit of a break from lyrics in Miles of Files, although there’s plenty of discussion of musicfrom Paul’s nightmare gig at the Elks’ Club to Pamela’s longing look back at the folk scene in Northampton. But I was hard-pressed to find a lyric beyond Paul’s sardonic quote of Edelweiss.

 

And Then Came Whizzers

So it was something of a surprise to me when I realized that I’d dipped back into those lyrics of mine for Whizzers, a novel recently completed and ready for release. This is the first time I’ve put these out into any public forum. Of course, my Launch Group will get much more in terms of sneak peeks than this. But for those of you interested in the upcoming book, here we go:

 

Fat old Charlie with his two-ton Harley was politically incorrect

And black-eyed Phil with his powders and pills was chemically suspect

And poor little Jeanie with her big blue meanies was really quite a wreck

They had one thing in common, they were trying to ease the load

And they were riding down that suicidal road.

 

And there you have it. Two sneak peeks from Whizzers, coming July 21st: the cover above and a bit of lyrical chicanery. Happy Monday!

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