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To introduce Diana Pharaoh Francis (also difrancis ), I just had to clip from the bio on her website, because, well, I was a horsey girl (as previously discussed) and it appealed to me immensely:

I was raised on a cattle ranch in Northern California (outside a town called Lincoln which is now part of an enormous sprawl). I taught myself to ride a horse at the age of six, as no one had the time to teach me—they were all busy learning how to irrigate, how to cajole an angry bull into another field, how to pull a calf... Afraid of heights, and absolutely sure I was going to die, I managed to scramble up on the back of a very patient and lazy strawberry roan destrier, and plod off into the sunset.

I have a fascination for the Victorians, weather, geology, horses, plants and mythology, I like spicy food, chocolate and cheesecake, and I have an odd sense of humor. (Or so I've been told. Often.) Incidentally, the Pharaoh is in fact my real name, and oddly enough, is of British origin.

"Building Worlds—Epic or Contemporary Style" by Diana Pharaoh Francis

World-building is one of the keys to writing good fantasy. It doesn’t matter whether the world is completely different from our own (epic fantasy), or if it’s set in modern day New York or San Diego or wherever. You have to establish the reality of your world and the way it works and it’s a lot harder to do that well than you might think.

Right now I’m working on Bitter Night, a contemporary fantasy set partly in San Diego and partly up near Missoula, Montana. All my previous books have been epic in nature, which means building the world from scratch. I have to think about every aspect—economy, food, clothing, weather, infrastructure, religion and the list is endless. I have to create every element. And I have to do it consistently and believably. I love world-building and its complexity and I spend a lot of time researching to get the details right and then taking notes so that I remember what I did. Making up stuff still has to be done within the bounds of believability. Using real world details helps me to establish a connection with readers and helps them to feel anchored in the fantasy world.

For instance, in The Black Ship (coming in November), I set most of the book on a square-rigged clipper ship. I had never even sailed on a little boat before and I was absolutely clueless. And a ship on my fantasy ocean has to work pretty much like a ship on the Atlantic or Pacific—so I can’t make things up out of whole cloth. That’s why you’ll find that fantasy writers do a whole lot of research all the time. Thus I went to Washington and took a short cruise on The Lady Washington and I asked a billion questions and took a lot of pictures. I befriended a man who works as a ship captain on square-rigged ships (there are more around than you might think) and I bugged him to death about all sorts of little things, and I read a lot of books. In the end, I’m pretty confident I got it right. I think when you read this novel you’ll feel like you’re in the middle of the ocean on a ship. At least I hope you do.

But that’s epic fantasy. I thought writing Contemporary Fantasy in an already established real world setting would be a whole lot easier, since the world already exists and my readers already know how the world works. Seems almost obvious, doesn’t it?

I was wrong.


Many of the same issues crop up. No, I don’t have describe how a lot of things happen—a cell phone is still a cell phone, a gun is still a gun. Except I do have to give a lot of the little details that make that cell phone and the gun seem real and not just generic. For instance, my character has a flip phone and she has Verizon cell service. Her gun is a basic Ruger .45 auto that holds a 10 clip. While I don’t have to establish a monetary currency, I do have to figure out where she gets her money, where she keeps it, how she spends it, what credit cards she carries, does she carry a wallet or a purse? I have to think about the music she listens to, the clothes she wears, the food she eats. Most of these details I’d never include in an epic novel, but they become important to establishing the world in a contemporary fantasy. And nothing can really be generic or vague. If she goes into a McDonalds in Victorville, CA, there has to be one there and it has to be open at the right times.

What it comes down to is that while the world-building in contemporary fantasy is very different from epic fantasy and has quite a different focus, there is just as much of it going on. What’s worse with world-building in contemporary fantasy is that readers will know if you get a detail wrong, and that may be annoying enough to eject them from the story and keep them from reading on. As a result, some writers might decide to go for fewer details to get around that problem—well there must be a McDonalds somewhere around there, I just won’t say where and people will just go along with me. And to an extent, that is true. Certain things are so ubiquitous that people won’t dig in their heels if something is a little off. But you can never tell what will be the detail that you don’t get right that will throw them out of the story. So you need to do your best to get everything as accurate and as specific as you can.

But there is balance needed. You don’t want to write an advertisement for everything on the planet. She drank a Coke, she ate a Twinkie, she wore Levi’s and Nikes, she ate at Appleby’s, she slept on Ikea furniture, she drove a Chevy Tahoe, listened to an iPod . . . you could just be brand-name central. So while you have to get the details right, you also have to be judicious. You want your reader to feel situated and established in the world, and you want that world to feel real and richly textured, so you offer some concrete and specific details. But you don’t have to list everything, or if you mention something, it doesn’t necessarily have to be by brand. Only include enough touchstones to keep your world vibrant and real.

Nancy Kress once said in a workshop I was in that she tries to put one smell on every page of her books, because smells are so very evocative to readers. I have tried to do much the same. These are excellent world-building details and require no brand names.

In the end, for both kinds of world-building, specific and consistent detail is everything. The kinds and nature of the details may be different, but the need for them remains.

Tune in tomorrow for "Making it Personal, Making it Real" by Carol Berg.

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( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 17th, 2008 03:05 pm (UTC)

This was an excellent post. Someone once commented, "This is fiction. You don't need to research it."

I'm glad you set that myth to rest.

I think a book with a well researched background shines in the details.

It doesn't hurt that you truly do live in God's country. Just that setting has to be inspirational.

I'm so enjoying these fantasy topics. Thank you for your insight and time.

Sep. 17th, 2008 03:23 pm (UTC)
The Black Ship
Um, will reading it be a problem for those of us who don't care to be on ships in the ocean for nausea-related reasons? ;)
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Sep. 17th, 2008 03:40 pm (UTC)
Re: The Black Ship
But there's no seasickness under the sea... :: grin ::
Sep. 17th, 2008 03:53 pm (UTC)
Excellent post, Diana. I guess in a nutshell, in epic fantasy, you have more freedom, you have to be more descriptive, but you must be careful to be consistent in the bounds of your created world. i.e. my world has no gravity, so I cannot describe somebody as being 150 lbs. Unless of course, you say he weighed 150 earth pounds.

On the other hand, in contemporary fantasy, you can be less descriptive, but more careful because people already know the bounds of the setting.

I think the casual reader underestimates the amount of research that goes into writing fiction.
Sep. 17th, 2008 04:11 pm (UTC)
World-building or daydreaming?
Husband will often say, "what are you doing?" and I'll respond "I'm working on the story."

He'll give me a strange look because I'm not in front of the computer. Most often I'm washing dishes or folding laundry, yet walking around that story world, just taking a look to see what I can see on the inside of my head.

Sometimes a well-built world makes it's own story. I'm glad you called attention to this important technique.
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Sep. 17th, 2008 07:25 pm (UTC)
Oh, please, when you are writing your next book, come stay with me... I hate doing dishes. ;)
Sep. 17th, 2008 06:13 pm (UTC)
Nicely done.
Sep. 17th, 2008 06:21 pm (UTC)
There are ways to get people to accept differences. For instance, if the owner of the McDonalds in question is a vampire, readers won't blink at very late hours.
Sep. 17th, 2008 07:22 pm (UTC)
Awesome article!! Thank you, Var for posting it. And thanks, Di for writing it! I love reading this stuff and have enjoyed this week so far.

I think my biggest issue is knowing when to stop. When you write, if I may bug you about something, Di, how much do you set-up before hand and how much is just organic as you go? Just curious. Thank you!!

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Sep. 17th, 2008 07:53 pm (UTC)
Thank you! That actually kind of helps b/c I think I get msyelf caught up in the planning stage b/c it's fun and less intimidating that the actual writing part. :)
Sep. 17th, 2008 07:58 pm (UTC)
An excellent comment! It can be doubly hard when you're writing in a modern country that isn't your own, and so have to walk the line between creating that feel-real setting and overkill.
Sep. 17th, 2008 09:19 pm (UTC)
Cautionary note on research: there's a difference between how things are supposed to work, and how they actually work. Example: In theory, Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport ought to be closed because of bad weather more often than O'Hare, particularly in winter. They follow the same Federal guidelines, right? In practice, MPLS-SP is closed far less often.
Sep. 17th, 2008 11:01 pm (UTC)
Great tips on world building
Hi Diana,

I got here through Lucienne's Myspace blog. I'm so glad I checked out your post. Very informative. I agree with you about needing to find a balance on including name brand details. The Nancy Kress workshop sounded very worthwhile. I will try that tip about adding a smell to every page. It seems like a simple thing, but it can definitely make a difference in making the fictional world "feel" real and unique.

Warm regards,

Michelle Lauren
American Title V Finalist
Sep. 18th, 2008 07:28 am (UTC)
"I admit that the book I'm working on is partially set in Montana. It's too dramatic a place not to."

Yep. I'm in Texas now, but I was in Montana for several months over two years taking care of some business for my father. Plus, I was born and raised there. I drove over the pass between Helena and Lincoln twice a day for two months and that country is magical for a writer. So many scenes got worked out in my head just from being there.
Sep. 18th, 2008 10:14 pm (UTC)
Nice! *waves* The woman on your cover looks like you!
Sep. 20th, 2008 12:25 pm (UTC)
It was encouraging to hear about Black Ship as I am just beginning a YA fantasy set mostly on a Catamaran in the open sea. Thankfully, my husband is a Pirate wannabe and has books, diagrams, plans, etc. and worships James Wharram. I hope I can pull this off.
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )

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