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Cartography (in Greek chartis = map and graphein = write) is the study and practice of making geographical maps. Combining science, aesthetics, and technique, cartography builds on the premise that reality can be modeled in ways that communicate spatial information effectively.

I suck at drawing. I suck so bad that if I draw a stick figure, it looks at me and gives me the finger. So when it comes to maps I am no good.

But why are maps important in speculative fiction?

Because they tell you the shape of the world/universe you created.

I mean, yes you can always do the old “Here be dragons” bit. That works fine when you’re on your first draft. All you need is a starting location and then you go from there. However, if you want to inject a sense of realism into your story (or at least create a logically consistent framework of reference) you need to start pinning down where everything is.

For example, your story begins in a charming village at the edge of a pine forest. That village could be anywhere. Then the Big Bad shows up and razes it to the ground. Now the hero has to pick himself from the ground, grab his father’s old (yet surprisingly non-rusty) sword and hunt down the murderer?

So where does he go?

To the Mile High mountains in search of one of the Big Bag’s henchman so beat some info- I mean question him on the where about of his master?

Go to the local lord’s castle and ask for help in his quest?

Perhaps go to the nearby city and warn them about the approaching army of darkness?

Go down into the bowels of a ruined temple and search for the Masterful Sword of Awesome Ass Whooping?

So where is it?

A three day ride to the south, across the Chasm of Doomed Idiots or over the Mountains of Nosebleed?

A gentle five week cruise across the Hell-O-Spont?

You can make it up as you go along, relying of massive amounts of handwavium to stave off the equally massive headache of graph paper that awaits you.

You might even pull it off.

So why bother with maps?

It’s a good way to keep everything straight. Think of a map as graphic note taking. As you build your narrative you build the map(s) which tells you where everything is in relation to everything else.

But that assumes that  your building your world as you write. Many a world builder starts big and works his way down. Or you can borrow from the “real world” (or existing fantasy worlds) and simply change/drop names of towns, cities and regions to your heart content.

Whatever your approach you should avoid the patchwork map syndrome. Yes, your world has magic or sufficiently advanced technology, still no need to be that lazy. High enough mountains will create rain shadows, the planet’s rotation will cause changes in temperature (and seasonal changes), rivers always flow to the ocean, etc.  Not only thus this gives you ye ole taste of realism (yummy!) but can give you ideas that expand your setting, characters and cultures. While the the debate between Nature and Nurture will outlast us all, no one can dismiss the impact the environment has on human (or alien) culture, so getting your maps right and by extension the geography, climate and other factors can really enhance your world as well as the readers experiences in it.

Now where did I leave that graph paper?

And because I never get tired of the anime, here your video of the day:

Some writers write without titles. Titles seem something you slap on your manuscript after the fact. As you have guessed (by the title of this post) I don’t work that way.

Well, usually….

But not this time.

My current WIP is going well, as in, I’m writing it, but it doesn’t have a tittle. I really don’t know what exactly this WIP is. Among the possibilities are:

  • A novel. A single manuscript from beginning to end.
  • A short story. It begins and ends as one.
  • A short story collection/serial.
  • A (gasp) book trilogy.
  • The seed of a NaNo.

Whatever it is (or will be) it has not title.

OK, I have a title, of sorts.

Age of Iron

An alternate history/fantasy “work” based on the European Dark Ages (500 CE-1000 CE).

But…it sounds so generic, so much of a ripoff. Yes, I know, you can’t copyright titles, but still, doesn’t feel right.

I done the research.

I’m working on the world building.

I have a good idea of the general plot points.

It feels like a gone diving without checking how much air is in my tanks. I’m all for discovery writing but I need a clear starting point just in case I get lost. That navigational point that allows me to navigate the unknown waters of imagination. A beacon in the dark night of creation. Up the proverbial creek without the proverbial paddle.

So, what am I to do?

And because you actually read through an entire post full of wangst here is a video to make all better:

Yeah, I caught the research bug. It’s a mutation of world building disease where you are trapped in an endless cycle of research material. In my case, wikis, lots and lots of wikis. I go off in an endless wiki walk.

What is a wiki walk?

I’ll show you.

For example:

Xenia: The Greek concept of hospitality. Simple enough, but then there is a link to Zeus, which leads to Mount Olympus which in turn leads to the Twelve Olympians.

Looking at ways mortals become gods leads me to Apotheosis, divine (divinity), theology,Imperial Cults, Ancient Egypt and on and on.

The end result looks something like this.

Not pretty, not at all.

And what am I doing spending the balance of my weekend trolling wikis until the explode all over my browsers tab section like shrooms on cow shit?

Data mining. Looking for concepts, names, that sort of thing. This is not in-depth research (I mean wikis, really). I just want enough to give my current project some depth beyond the standard Medieval fantasy fare.

The risk of all of this is that I start “showing my research” or worse show that I did not do enough of it.

Oh well.  At least I am writing while I research otherwise I get trapped in world building and get nothing done and that would be a real shame.

There are three paths to rule creation (and by rule I mean the rules, planks and other staples that support the internal logic of any work of speculative fiction):

  1. Strict Construction: The writers has a rule for everything and for everything a rule.
  2. Fudge it/Fuzzy Logic: The writer sets the rules as the situation demands it.
  3. Thou Shall Not: The writer concentrates on the outer edges of the rules, that is, on those things that CAN NOT BE DONE within the setting/universe.

The first option is one that many a Tolkien/RPG fan takes as the de facto way of building a backdrop for their upcoming epic fantasy story. Worked well for Tolkien, but many a would be writer ends up catching world building addiction/disease and never reach he first page of the first draft.

Others, after spending many hours pouring over every detail of the rules that govern their universe then feel the overwhelming urge to write paragraph after paragraph describing said rules with slavish devotion. Exposition without action is telling not showing. Then you have the writer that gets stuck somewhere on late Act 2 and finds that the reason they are stuck is because either a) the rules don’t cover this particular situation or b) according to the same rules, well, the plot is screwed.

End result: the Ass Pull. Yes, it is as ugly and for the reader, as painful as it sounds.

Strict Construction is a style of world building you work your way into after many a trial and error, unless you are Brandon Sanderson, or Tolkien, or a game designer. What about discovery writers? Discovery writers (like me) don’t have the time, patience (or skill) to engineer everything before hand (no outlines).

So we tend to fix rules after the fact, hence the term Fudge It/Fuzzy Logic. Rules pop up as needed. Great for the writer on the go, but can be murder on consistency. The rule you set in stone in page 14 can bite you in the butt on page 214. Can lead to anything from Fridge Logic to You Fail Logic Forever, especially when you’re trying to apply the Rule of Cool and instead the reader thinks you’re pulling everything from between your butt cheeks (see previous scatological link above).

Solution: Write everything down!

A rule is a rule, is A RULE!

Unless the rule is that vampires sparkle in sunlight.

I know where you live. Don’t make me come to your home and slap you in public.

Ahem.

Where was I?

Last but not least: Thou Shall Not or there are no rules but these rules, conveniently packaged in a stone tablet and numbered 1-10.  This method means that everything goes, and I do mean everything EXCEPT anything in the list.  Gives the writer a wide latitude but can turn some people off plus can end up with a Deus Ex Machina (a A$$ Pull on steroids with frosting on top). No limits means very little in the way of internal logic. Fortunately the same solution that applies to #2 applies here as well.

Of course, you can make a story around breaking said rules, or having the characters work their way around them. Now that could make for some interesting reading. If done right, of course.

Just remember: NO SPARKLING! Thank you!

And now for the video of the day:

Years ago I thought up an epic saga, two thousand years in the future with vast star ship armadas, legions of mechanized soldiers and double dealing noble houses. I spent many an hour writing the back story, going so far as creating a “Encyclopedia Galactica”.

So where is this great story of mine?

In a drawer somewhere?

Perhaps a lost computer file?

I wish.

It remains all in my head. I wrote a paragraph at most only to annihilate it with the dreaded backspace button.  Yes, I fell victim to the bane of oh so many would be speculative fiction writers, world building disease.

Although, truth be told, it is not really a disease, per say, but an addiction. What really happens is that writer’s get addicted to the act of world (or universe) creation.  There is always something new to create; a race(s), country, time line, key characters, monsters, magic items, technology, etc.

I have three ways of breaking the cycle of addiction to this God-like power:

  1. Forget about world building and just write the story. The story’s universe will be come to life as you write.
  2. Mine what you already have.
  3. Look for work where world building skills are useful.

That is what I did for my second novel. True, I did cheat by placing it in a near-future setting and borrowing heavily from history (both real and mythological). Yet I had to create organizations, magic, demons and the like.

So I did a bit of world building, but only so much. I’m not a outline writer, instead what I do is I scribble a few notes to set my “universe” boundaries. I ask myself a few questions about the scope (planetary, star system, galaxy), technology (giant robots, magitech, steampunk) and characters. These form the outer edges of the canvas I will work with, as well as the basic palette of colors. As I write the story I take notes of the stuff that comes up, expand where needed (research, research and when in doubt research some more). That way I kept writing and ended up with a complete work that included a fair amount of back story.

The second strategy is to mine what you already have. As Howard Tayler suggest in the latest episode of Writing Excuses podcast, write a story about the people already in your outline.  Somebody had to create the fabulous Sword of Unbending Truth, defend the Pass of No Return or assault Garesh VI, right? You don’t have to write a whole novel around them, but a short story would do. It also shifts the focus from telling (world building) to showing (writing a story). At the very least you are creating a living framework for your universe, one that will hone your skills as a writer and may even be publishable in their own right. Not all 600 page books are made up of one story,  many are omnibuses/anthologies.

This brings me to my third point; you might not be a writer…of novels. Your talent may well lie in creating fertile fields for others to explore. You might still write in your universe, but that doesn’t mean your the only one that has to. You can share your idea with your writer’s group or get a job with a gaming company (paper/pencil or computer). They are always looking for the next “campaign setting” to serve as the basis for an existing or new franchise.

Just look at the many books already published in pre-existing franchises. Most of them are based on RPGs, comic books or other preexisting works. George Lucas created Star Wars, but dozens of writers have worked on the Expanded Universe. Same thing with D&D (all versions), World of Warcraft, Star Trek, and so on.  Just look at the Dragonlance series of books.

Whatever approach you decide to take the key is to be productive. World building is necessary, but it should not stop you from doing actual writing. At some point you have to stop telling me about the genealogy of the great kings of Adtmadar and start showing me who they are and why should I care about them. That means more than a dissertation or a time line. It means characters, dialogue, plot and action.

It’s the difference between a house and a home.

A house it’s a structure. Nothing more, nothing less.

A home is place that people live in.  A place that has meaning and consequences.

Time to turn your house into a home.