Thursday, February 17, 2011

One Writer's World-Building Tools

By Barbra Annino

On my desk I have a notebook, a folder, pens and three books.

On my wall I have a whiteboard scribbled with text and a storyboard pasted with pictures.


Because I’m beginning a new series filled with brand new concepts, characters and storylines. In essence, I’m building a world and these are my tools.

World building is one of the most exciting aspects of the writing process. You get to research, brainstorm and basically make stuff up. What’s not to love?

So let me breakdown how I use these tools and why they are necessary.

The notebook is the bible for my series. This is where I jot down ideas, research notes, dialogue snippets, plot points, character sketches and anything else that hits me along the way. Eventually, most of the stuff from the notebook gets recorded into my writer’s word processing program. I use WriteWay, but Word and Excel work great too. I use the same notebook for the entire series.

Next is the folder. It's a different color for each book. The folder holds news clippings I may find interesting that tie into the theme, internet research, loose paper with notes I made when I didn’t have my notebook, photos, sketches and anything else I stumble across that rings of my story.

Pens and post-its are what I use to mark pages in research books I buy or borrow. The research books help tremendously when building a fictional world, even in the paranormal, sci-fi, or fantasy genres.

There are at least 20 authors I can think of off the top of my head who write about vampires and most of them differ greatly, but they all know the myths of the traditional vampire stories. That doesn’t mean they adhere to them, but they know what they are -- and if the garlic, sunlight and stake issues are ignored, you bet readers notice. Not to mention Fae, witches and weres. Real research comes in handy even in the mythical genres. In fact, employing lore makes for a more realistic storyline. A truer fantasyland.

To the whiteboard goes the brainstorming ideas. The 'what ifs?' of the plotlines. And the ‘rules’ of the world. What do I mean by that? Here’s an example:

Sookie Stackhouse can mind-read. But only if she’s in the room with the person. And only if the person is human.

These are rules. You can’t have a character who is all-powerful or all-knowing or the story wouldn’t be much fun to read. So even if you have a demon hunter, a werewolf, a sprite, a medium, or a ghost in your story, there must be restrictions to their capabilities. Figure out what they are, then figure out ways around them and be consistent throughout the story. If that sprite only has a 20 year life-span, he'd better be dead by book three.

Last, the storyboard. This is fun. I get a poster board and clip images from magazines or websites that pertain to the story and glue them on. Right now, the board has photos of my protagonist, my villains, the setting and a map. It’s a great way to visualize the story before you start writing. It also helps if you’ve been away from the work for a while, to guide you back to it.

So there you have it. How do you plan a new novel?

Top photo: Tobacco & Mule Exchange in Apex, NC. Photo by Heather.
Bottom photo: Fernandina, FL. Photo by Kathie Felix.

Barbra Annino is the author of Opal Fire, a Stacy Justice gemstone mystery. A Chicago native, she freelances for a variety of publications, writing about health, food and travel.


Sheila Connolly said...

Often I start with a picture--a place, an object, an animal. One book came about when I was wandering through an old orchard and came upon a springhouse in the middle, and said to myself (there was no one else around, luckily), what a great place to put a body! That springhouse actually made it to the cover of the book.

And then I sit down and hand-write a sort of narrative outline, in pencil--maybe four or five pages long. It's the only time I don't type any part of it. I may never look at that outline again, but it helps me organize my thoughts.

Loni Emmert said...

I never used to use world-building aids but for the one I am working on now I find it essential. I love to use photos and definitely music (I cannot live without music). Love the photo at the bottom - where can I buy a house like that?? Great post, very inpsiring. thanks!

Sandra Parshall said...

I need a name book to help me give my characters exactly the right names. I also keep a notebook with all my notes on characters, plot, places, etc. I do my loose outline on the computer, though, and I also keep a computer file on the characters. It's incredible how much information I collect as I go along -- my "research" stack is always thicker than the manuscript.

Gail Baugniet said...

You've written an interesting and instructional process for building the world of your series.

Though I remain unpublished (not incurably so)I continue to follow one procedure before beginning a new novel. I visit the local library of my next setting and print out copies of newspapers for the pertinent days.

Julie Godfrey Miller said...

Great ideas. I still have some trouble organizing all the "stuff."

I do love writing brainstorming ideas on a white board. (I actually uses cling film sheets that serve the same function.) Sometimes I think better on my feet, pacing around the room.

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Like you, I do story boards, notebooks, and character photos. Starting the first book in a new series always entails a lot of extra work, but once you lay the groundwork, the sequels come easier.

P.I. Barrington said...

I've found lots of actual worldbuilding worksheets (along with character worksheets)that have pages of lists of important details that you print and just fill in with what you want. Patricia Wrede created a good one several years ago and if you look up her name, you should get it. These sheets list geography, languages spoken religion(s), culture, weaponry, entertainment, historical aspects of your world--I've finally gotten around to my sci fi and fantasy stories and believe me, I never thought I'd use one. Right now I have about nine of them, some saved as templates just on actual worldbuilding. Same with the character worksheets. Do searches on wb & cc. Note* most of the world building is oriented toward sci fi/fantasy writing.
OR, if you're like me, you can have binders full of pictures of places, ads, people, etc. as well as books upon books of baby names. (I have five as of last month.)
Okay rambling done.

P. Lozar said...

Setting a story in the "real world" can take as much planning and research as creating a whole new world.

Last year I started working in earnest on a series of mystery novels that I began in 1991 but set aside. Because the Loma Prieta earthquake affects the plot of the first novel, I've maintained the original chronology. So the novel I'm currently drafting takes place in 1994 and starts with an actual event that June.

Once I'd developed a general outline of the plot, I printed a 1994 calendar off the Internet and linked scenes to specific dates. I went to a weather site and checked the phases of the moon and sunrise/sunset times on those dates. While I'm not finicky about reproducing the actual weather, I try to make it typical for that season. For night scenes, I checked an astronomy site for the positions of the stars and planets.

I also use Gail's method of reading local newspapers for the days when the novel takes place. Because I'm writing about events that supposedly occurred 20 years ago, I research local history to make the setting accurate for that period -- e.g., did the city have bus service at that time?

OK, I'm writing fiction. But our world has "rules" too, and I can't show Orion rising at twilight in midsummer, or have a character waiting for a bus that didn't exist until 5 years later.