Worldbuilding and Character Development With The Detritus of Life

My husband bought a new piece of equipment, and thought he might just have the right cable for it. I’m not sure whether he does or not, but the collection itself helped me understand something about worldbuilding. When my husband commented on how we were looking at our own history, I realized I could use the stuff stuck in the corners of my characters’ homes to explain who they are and how they came to be that way. I’ve used small items that a character treasures for worldbuilding and character development, but I’ve never thought about the detritus of life. This is the stuff that only gets dragged out when you move, or redecorate, or are absolutely convinced that you still have that perfect whatsit hiding in a box somewhere. Very likely the items themselves will not have a role to play in the plot, but will be invaluable for backstory. Who knows, I might even start clearing out the corners of the house to find good examples to use.

Luck and wisdom!

Archaeology and Worldbuilding

Once again, my love of nonfiction is going to help me become a better science fiction writer. Neil Price admits that the Viking culture he teaches now is not precisely the culture he taught years ago. As he has explored more digs and re-evaluated the artifacts, he has come to different conclusions about them and the people who used them. Not only is this exciting to me – there is still more to learn! – it is a valuable tool when I create the worlds my characters inhabit. One single artifact could upend everything I’ve thought about my characters, opening up new plot lines (or possibly cleaning up old ones). I don’t have to create a detailed economic system for my alien worlds, but I can hint at it with the tools and market places I describe. My readers are likely to be interested in other government or religious systems only as they explain who my characters are. You can learn a lot about describing alien societies by reading how archaeologists and anthropologists describe human societies so far removed from our culture that they may as well have come from another planet.

Luck and wisdom!

Grounding A Timeless Story

I was watching a silent movie the other day, and I was astounded at how modern it looked. The acting style and the scene construction could all work in a contemporary film. The plot was a timeless romance. Then I realized how different life was for the actors and crew of the film, and wondered what they might have done differently if they had known what was coming.

The film was released in 1915. The war in Europe – and that’s all it was called then – was still in early days. Woodrow Wilson would promise to keep America out of the war in his next presidential campaign, but that was a year away. The first influenza cases that would lead to the 1918 pandemic were two years away. The star of the movie, Mary Pickford, would have to wait more than five years to cast her first vote. If she could have seen the next ten years, would she have played her character the same way?

As I considered how I could use these thoughts to ground a timeless story – and what that story might be – I noticed my reindeer collection on the piano. Last year at this time I was preparing to leave until after New Year, so decorating was minimal. I may have put out one reindeer. I certainly didn’t put up a tree. I told myself that next year I would go all out. Well, that’s not going to happen, and I’m fine with it. Celebrations are the stuff of timeless stories, so should I write a story of this Christmas it will incorporate my feelings of two holidays in a row that didn’t start out as expected but ended up being wonderful. And yes, despite the pandemic, this Christmas will be wonderful.

Luck and wisdom!

Asking Questions

My copy of Wonderland, already flagged and tagged

Creating art usually starts with a question. What if I mixed these colors? What if I sewed these fabrics together? What if a stranger came to town with a mysterious gift? Then you bring out the paints, or the scissors, or sit at the computer and let the rest of the project flow logically from that question. Turns out writing history is the same. You start with a question, assemble your supplies – in this case, the documents, photographs, and artifacts of the era you’re studying – and let the story flow logically from the facts. Except that the interpretation of the facts is colored by the way you ask the question. Steven Johnson asked a question about fashion, recreation, entertainment, and the unknown masses and came up with a different take on history. The first chapter of Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World is called Fashion and Shopping. I’m not thin or rich enough to be a fashionista, but I certainly have experienced the benefits of retail therapy, especially at a quilt shop. How wonderful, then, to read Johnson’s discussion of the effect of cotton on Europe. Not only was cotton a revelation in texture to people accustomed to wool and linen, but the results of the dying techniques developed in India were irresistible. “When Vasco da Gama brought back a cargo full of textiles in 1498 from his landmark expedition around the Cape of Good Hope, he gave Europeans their first real experience of the vivid patterns and almost sensual textures of calico and chintz.” The next line is even better: “As fabrics, calico and chintz first made their way into the routine habits of Europeans through the gateway drug of interior decorating.”

My first thought on reading these paragraphs was about my next stories and novels. I could build my grand civilizations not on the bones of conquered peoples, but on the imagination of interior designers. My planets could be ruled not by emperors, but by fabric artists. Storytellers could be the most highly regarded in the population. The economies could work because they already have worked here. I’ve just begun the book and have already flagged a dozen pages with notes-to-self on world-building. All of which proves that asking questions is always valuable, and asking odd questions is even better.

Luck and wisdom!