setting

mountains and alpine meadows

World Building: Starting in the right place

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, but Hot Key’s question today on Twitter pushed me to get on with writing about it, not least because I’m determined to start blogging more regularly again.

What Hot Key wanted to know was how you build a world. It’s not something I’ve done in The Bone Dragon or in MoB (i.e. Book 2). But it is something I’m doing in several of my upcoming novels so it’s been on my mind a lot.

It’s so easy, when you think about building a world, to start with place. That’s what a world is, at base, after all. Isn’t your first image, when you think the word ‘world’, a planet or a map or something of that sort?

It’s a lot of fun to let your imagination conjure up mountains, deserts and seas… vast cities and picturesque villages. What a lovely afternoon you can spend peopling them with fantastic creatures from myth and fairytale or just from your own mind.

But none of this is going to help you write a really good book. A good book starts with a good story. And story is not place. The setting may be hugely important, but usually because it’s almost a character in its own right.

And there’s your answer about where to start: character.

Build your world about the characters you’re going to write about. What sort of world explains who they are? What sort of world will challenge them in interesting and exciting ways, giving you your plot?

Are you doing it again? Are you thinking of your world as a place that will challenge your characters? Do you really want to write a book about people climbing mountains or surviving in the desert? That’s not much of a plot, is it?

Remember, your world is a character.

‘But how does that help?’ you ask. And the answer is… it helps when you remember that it’s only one character. One among many.

There’s the real key: the true place to start. Your world is how all the characters fit together. How does wealth work? How does your setting influence that? How does gender (or the equivalent) work? What are the axes of inequality? What gives people power? What are the social and inter-personal rules? What are the values and beliefs, traditions and norms that underpin these rules?

Those things will grow out of and through ‘place’ – the physical world of your story – but the most important elements of any world-as-story are the people and the structures that dictate how they relate to each other.

Whatever they do, characters are always acting in accordance with the rules or against them: even when characters break the rules, the rules are still there. Which means that whatever characters do, they’re making a socially meaningful decision. They’re inviting consequences and… Hey, presto! We have conflict and tension, risks and rewards, goals and desires, obstacles and aids… We have all the ingredients for a great plot. A great story.

Some of the rules you need to work out to build your world will be relationship rules and some will be social rules… But there are always rules between people: big ones and small ones. Ones for whole societies and sub-rules even within families.

That is the true world you need to build: the world that grows out of who your characters are and the story you want to tell about how they relate to each other.

So don’t start with a map. Start with characters and build your world outwards from them. Don’t ignore your setting, just treat it as one of those characters. But only one of them. Otherwise you’ll end up with a setting to graft a story on, not a setting that is an integral part of your story.

frosted acer leaf

This enchantment of ice and crystal

 frosted rose

In honour of last week’s Dragon-worthy frost, some photos that made me think of a particular scene from the book.

frosted fens

… the grass is so thickly frosted, every blade sharp-coated with ice…

 

frosted acer branches

The skeleton of the tree glows in the frozen night air as if displaying its soul to the heavens.

 

frosted acer leaves

The acer is a marvel of white over red.

 

frosted flowers

… diamond-flashes catch off the newly strange plants in the beds …

frosted seed pods

Now everything is shaded in grey and silver and white.

frosted ivy

Everything solid has turned to crystal.

[cross-posted on www.thebonedragon.com]

leaves against the sunlight

The Next Big Thing

The lovely Katy Darby has just tagged me for the Next Big Thing meme: a questionnaire designed to get writers talking about their next book. Ideally, each writer tags five others but I seem to have a knack for tagging people who’ve done it and those who don’t have blogs. Go me!

Anyway, here’re my answers. (BTW, I’m cross-posting on both blogs because I ended up talking a lot about The Bone Dragon.)

 

What is the working title of your next book?

MoB. While I’m still drafting I only ever refer to a book by the initials of the working title. Sharing the title sets it in stone for me so, as it’s hard to be sure a title’s right until the book is done, I try to keep it to myself until I’m fairly confident I won’t have to change it.

I’m the type of writer who doesn’t like to share a work in progress; for me, a big part of the joy of being a writer, and not a performer, is that I can keep my work secret until I’m ready to hear what other people think. If I start sharing stuff too soon, I get caught up in other people’s ideas and start doubting my own. I need to have a draft that’s close enough to the book in my head that I can use feedback effectively before I go about inviting it by sharing information. So, MoB it is for now. And, no, it’s not about men in dark suits or aliens. Or mobsters. Or flash mob dance crews. I defy you to guess the title… But would love to see your best shot.

 

Where did the idea for the book come from?

In The Bone Dragon, I feel that I started a conversation about a series of themes that are really important to me as a writer. MoB is the continuation of that conversation, without being a sequel. The plot developed from the idea for the ‘hook’, which led me to a key moment in the climax. From there, I used the idea of continuing the conversation from The Bone Dragon to help me work out the story of how and why the ‘hook’ leads to the climax – and vice versa, since the story isn’t as linear as it seems. The fun bit is that this is the opposite of how The Bone Dragon works: TBD is completely linear, only it’s not clear that that’s the case until you’ve reached the very end of the book.

 

What genre does your book fall under?

Like The Bone Dragon, MoB is a YA psychological thriller that will hopefully appeal to anyone over 16.

 

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

That’s a really tough question for me. One of the weirder bits of being as dyslexic and dyspraxic as I am is that I find it hard to remember and, therefore, to recognise faces. When I’m having a ‘dyslexic day’ (anyone who is dyslexic will tell you that a person’s level of ‘dyslexic-ness’ shifts from day to day – it’s one of the key things about dyslexia that research has yet to explain), I even struggle to recognise close friends and members of my own family. Mostly I recognise people by their context, their voice and, critically, their hair. This has a huge impact on my aesthetic. I rarely take photos of people and, when I do, I only take ‘snaps’. I just don’t have any sort of an eye for faces in their entirety. This is probably why I feel very strongly about letting readers ‘see’ what they want when it comes to my characters. I tend to provide a bare minimum (and often not even that) in relation to physical descriptions of people.

The flip side is that my visual aesthetic is overwhelmingly taken up with settings and objects. I always give a huge amount of detail on these things because I ‘see’ these things with crystal clear focus – almost as a way of making up for the fuzziness of the people. I love taking photos of landscapes and plants. My best photos are to do with angle, texture and detail, and that’s true in my writing as well. That, in a nutshell, is my visual aesthetic.

The bottom-line here is that I’m not sure I *can* answer this question. I’m also not sure I want to. If I did, I wouldn’t give photos, rather I’d talk about what various actors could bring to the parts in terms of evoking the key emotional aspects of the characters. For instance, the main character needs to be thin (it’s important to the plot): she also needs to look like someone who has attractive features but is almost trying to make herself unattractive, so the actor couldn’t be straight-forwardly pretty. She needs to come across as bordering on sullen, but with a degree of vulnerability that indicates that this is more than just ‘teenage sulks’. At the same time, she can’t seem fragile: she’s prickly on the outside and angrily defensive on the inside… Which makes her sound so lovable. But, like in The Bone Dragon, it doesn’t really matter whether readers like the protagonist per se. They just have to identify with the emotions that fuel her behaviour.

 

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

MoB is to a ghost story what The Bone Dragon is to a fantasy story about dragons. It starts with a girl in a blue coat vanishing into an autumn wood.

 

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Represented by my amazing, wonderful, fantastic, brilliant agent, Claire Wilson, at Rogers, Coleridge & White.

 

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

It’s not finished yet but I hope to have the draft done by the end of January. I know exactly what’s going to happen every step of the way, so it’s just about finding the right ideas at the sentence level. I hope it won’t be a long edit: it feels like it won’t be, but maybe that’s just wishful thinking. I’ve only been working on the idea since about March-April so it’ll be my shortest idea-to-book conversion ever. But I’ve got a good feeling about it, like I had with The Bone Dragon, so hopefully…

 

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Oh gawd. I always find these questions so hard. It seems so presumptuous to compare to my work to the books I dream about seeing mine sit beside. Um… I guess the best answer looks back to what I said earlier: MoB is the continuation of a conversation I started with The Bone Dragon. If really pushed, I guess MoB is The Go-Between meets The Lovely Bones. Sort of.

 

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

When I first had the idea, I knew this was a book I wanted to write… but the inspiration that made it my most urgent project came from being signed by my wonderful agent, Claire. Out of all the books I wanted to write, this seemed the most natural progression from The Bone Dragon. I would love for Claire to enjoy the book and be excited to represent it. It’s the best way I can think of to say thank you for the first miraculous ‘yes’ that led to my finally being published…

… which, in turn, involved another critical ‘yes’. I absolutely love working with the team at Faber: it would be great to see if that relationship could continue and I think they might like MoB… but we’ll see.

 

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

The protagonist is 16 going on 17, so the book explores some territory that’s touched on in The Bone Dragon but remains between the lines. The same aesthetic principles apply in terms of how the darker subject matter is tackled, but the conversation goes further. The protagonist is at a different point in her life with different things at stake so I have a very different array of opportunities to explore what damage means for someone who is on the verge of a whole series of life-defining choices – about A-levels, university, romantic relationships, where she lives, how she lives, who she’s going to be as an adult… In MoB, impending adulthood means that the main character doesn’t have much time to ‘get her act together’ if she is going to avoid mucking up her future.

Those are the things about MoB that are most exciting for me, as the writer. For the reader, there’s a much more obvious mystery to be solved in MoB that will hopefully sustain the book in a more fluid way than in The Bone Dragon. But the answers to that mystery will (hopefully) lead readers somewhere they’re not expecting at all.

 

So… three guesses what MoB stands for. Go on. Give it a shot. It’s cold and dreary and dark. Laughing will make it better. (So will chocolate, but that’s your own affair.)

Fall beech trees

Fieldtrip time! Visualising the world of the story

When I start a new book, I always try to go on a fieldtrip. I either visit the place where the book is set, if it’s a real place and if it isn’t too far afield… or I go somewhere that has the same look and feel. If you’re writing about the Yorkshire Moors and live in the UK, it’s a good idea to go there… But it doesn’t have to be the first thing you do. First, you might want to think where there is a bit of heathland and some bog near you. Where can you go to take some photos that will inspire you?

Sometimes ‘close enough’ is a good place to start because it doesn’t tie you to what you think is real. If you have actual photos of your setting, it can be really hard to move beyond those. Maybe you took took shots at the wrong angle or of the wrong bit of the Moors. Maybe you went in the wrong weather or didn’t have the right sort of light. If the photos are there, glaring at you, it’s hard to give yourself permission to write your version of the Moors (or wherever). Starting with something ‘close enough’ allows you to draw inspiration from your photos without feeling you’re cheating by using your imagination to create the place you want to write about.

But do go to the Moors (or the Fens or wherever your book is set) eventually if you possibly can. Maybe there’s something you got a bit wrong that you need to correct. Or maybe there’s not quite enough detail in your book. Use your fieldtrip to go and find some. With the world of the book firmly in mind, you’ll probably be able to take better photos for your needs and find the type of detail that fits in with what you want to show.

My latest novel, MoB, is set on the edge of a forest. I am fairly (though not entirely) sure I don’t want it to be set in a real place. I’m not even sure I’m going to be very specific about where in the UK my imaginary town/village on the edge of a forest is. The one thing I do know is that I don’t want to set the book firmly in the real villages in and around the local woods I’ll be using as my inspiration.

Autumn beeches

When taking fieldtrip photos, I try to take pretty pictures… but I also try to take some that will remind me what it was like to be there. For instance, it’s good to have a photo to remind myself that it may be a beech forest but there are other types of trees too, including some amazing old oaks.

Oak tree

Variety is also important. Don’t just find the prettiest place you can and take 100 shots. Try to represent as many facets of whatever locale you are in. If you are on the Yorkshire Moors, pick an area and try to represent that. I picked a 1/4 mile square area and still managed to capture several very different types of landscape. All of these pictures were taken within 1 hour, but they also vary hugely in terms of how warm/cold they look, what the terrain is like, what colour the turning leaves are and so forth.

Frost and autumn trees

Autumn trees

Trees against the light

Try to take a few quirky shots too. Things that get your imagination going.

Plane reflected in lake

Autumn leaves floating on lake

Above all, make sure you take photos that will remind you what you found most beautiful about the place. What made you fall in love with it and want to rush back to your computer to write?

Autumn trees reflected in lake

Bare tree and frost

Autumn tree against the light

Finally, think outside the box. Find the magic in your setting. How else will you be able to show it to the reader?

Reflection of autumn tree

'Fairy Glade'