writing tips

Tips for World Building in Fiction

I was surprised during our weekly Writers in the Grove free Monday workshop meeting that some of my fellow members didn’t know about the concept of world building in writing.

When you write fiction, you create a world, literally. It may represent the real world or a fantasy world. It consists of scenes, places where events occur in your story.

Your fictional world is made up of places, people, cultures, traditions, habits and routines, weather, geology, current events, and politics.

I’m working on a story that takes place in 1979. I begin my world building by researching historical events in 1979, then branch into newsworthy stories and topics, and even some trivia. If my story is concentrated solely in the United States, and specifically a location, say Seattle, then most of my research would focus on what happened in Seattle in and around 1979. Here are some of the results of my web search.

Sony Walkman - OriginalIn my research, I discover that the average income that year in the United States was $17,500, and the average monthly rent was $280, a far cry from today’s prices. A gallon of gas cost 86 cents, oil was $24 a barrel, and the Toyota Corolla was one of the most popular cars on the road and the $200 Sony Walkman was in demand by most teenagers and college students. Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” album won awards and played out of boomboxes everywhere, blasting “Y.M.C.A.” by The Village People off the charts. The daily news included updates on Voyager 1 as it made its closest pass by Jupiter, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, the Moral Majority religious movement by Jerry Falwell, 63 American hostages taken in Iran, and Saddam Hussein becoming president of Iraq. John McEnroe, Tracy Austin, Bjorn Borg, and Martinia Navratilova became household names as tennis champions. We watched MASH, The Jeffersons, The Dukes of Hazzard, One Day at a Time, and Three’s Company on television. The big screen played Alien, All That Jazz, Apocalypse Now, Start Trek: The Motion Picture, Norma Rae, The China Syndrome, Being There, Life of Brian, Mad Max, and the Muppet Movie.

If you are writing about 1979, this is the world your characters lived in. They listened to that music, watched that news, those movies, and said funny things like quotes from movies and television such as “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins” (Brooke Shields ad for Calvin Klein), “Reach out and touch someone” (AT&T ad), “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” (Apocalypse Now), and “You need this for your rent, boy” (Richard Pryor).

Cultural stories might filter into conversations or even the thoughts of your characters such as when then-President Jimmy Carter explained how he almost tipped when an enraged swamp rabbit swam toward his fishing boat, or comment on the first time a milk carton featured a picture of a missing child. Or the fears that swept the globe as NASA’s Skylab fell to Earth, landing in Australia, made fun of afterwards by many when the Shire of Esperance in Western Australia fined NASA $400 for littering. Or maybe how Charles Manson sent a Monopoly “Get Out of Jail Free” card in a humorous attempt to be released by the parole board. Or maybe the dinner table discussion that night might be about the work of Mother Teresa after she won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Starbucks Coffee Store downtown SeattleThe world your characters live in influences their personalities, behaviors, even habits. A worker in 1979 living and/or working in downtown Seattle would have made sure they made a swing by Starbucks at 1912 Pike Place for a cup of their soon-to-be-famous coffee.

Now think about your characters and their relationship to this place and this time. Are all of your characters from here? Or maybe one or more of them are from different places, creating conflict when their worlds come together such as a white woman from Seattle falling in love with a black man from Mississippi in 1958, or the reverse. What about a new immigrant from Europe or Africa landing on the shores of the United States or Canada in the 1800s? Or maybe you have a person from Germany finding their way in Alabama in 1943 at the height of World War II? When we travel, we bring our worlds with us no matter where we go.

Your story may begin in any time and place. The world existed for your characters before the start of your story, and they might survive your story. Reveal the world they live in, as well as the world of history and experiences they carry with them through your story, to your readers as they shake hands and get to know your characters.

Here are a list of questions to help you define the world in which your characters live.

  • Why are your characters here?
  • How did your characters get here?
  • Why here now?
  • What makes this place special to the character(s)?
  • What makes this time necessary to the character(s)?
  • What’s important in this place and time?
  • What is it about this place that welcomes your characters?
  • What is about this place that challenges your characters?
  • What is about this place that creates conflict in or between your characters?
  • How is this place different from other places, and how does it matter to your characters?
  • What’s the weather like? Now and seasonally?
  • What’s the landscape, geology, terrain?
  • Is it crowded with buildings, people, or things? Or wide open and spacious, distance between buildings, people, and things?
  • What does it sound like here?
  • What does it feel like here?
  • What does it smell like here?
  • Who comes here? Who stays away from here?
  • How many people live here?
  • What do they do?
  • How do they do it?
  • What are their rituals, habits, routines, traditions?
  • How do people live here?
  • Where do people live here?
  • What do they eat and drink? How is it grown? Where do they get their food?
  • Are there races, ethnic groups, or other signs of diversity?
  • Is there a class system? Social, justice, gender, ethnic, cultural, or economic? How do they interact and react to the world around them?
  • Who are the leaders?
  • What’s hot in the news and gossip columns here? What are people worried or talking about?
  • How do the people interact here? In the streets, cafes, plazas, town squares, virtually, meetings, social hours?
  • What are the laws? How do the laws impact the characters?
  • What happens when a law is broken?
  • Is this a stable society or one on the edge or dropped into chaos?
  • How was this place made? Immigration, governance, wars, etc.?
  • What’s the health of the place? Epidemics? Do the people have an active or inactive lifestyles?
  • How safe is the place?
  • What makes people feel safe or unsafe here? Why?
  • What are the philosophies that guide this society and community?
  • Is this community/society religious? How? Why?
  • How does this society’s infrastructure function? Are there roads? Who builds them? Garbage? Power? Housing?
  • What did it take to build this world?
  • If this world would come to an end, what would it take?

This is just a few of the questions to consider. Go through these, and the questions and suggestions offered in the resources below, then ask yourself: Could this scene happen anywhere else? How would it change? How would it change the characters? How would it change the story? See what happens.

Resources on World Building

One last bit of advice.

If you introduce something new to the world in which your characters live, ask yourself if this change their world. How does it? If it is magic or technology, does it impact only your characters or everyone in society? How? Why? Is it good, bad, or indifferent? How do they adapt to the change? is it good for everyone or just a few?

Remember, your characters live in the test tube of your imagination. Every twist or turn in the story may create a tsunami of change beyond the bubble that is your main characters. Let your readers see and feel the change.

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November 6: Speaker Tim Applegate

Monday, November 6, 2018, author Tim Applegate will be speak at our Monday morning workshop from 9AM-11AM at the Forest Grove Senior and Community Center in Forest Grove, Oregon. This is a free, regular workshop event and all are welcome to join us. Bring pen and paper and an open mind as usual.

Tim Applegate will be speaking about publishing submission acceptance and rejections. He is the author of the novel Fever Tree and three books of poetry. A commercial contractor specializing in furniture and wood restoration for the hotel and cruise ship industry, he retired in 2015 to dedicate the next part of his life to writing full-time. He is the co-winner of the Tillie Olsen award for Creative Writing, and his work has been published in the Florida Review, The South Dakota Review, Lake Effect, The Briar Cliff Review, and others. He currently lives in the foothills of the Coast Range in Oregon.

NaNoWriMo 2017 Guide and Preparation

NaNoWriMo logoIt’s NaNoWriMo time again, National Novel Writing Month. Get out your spreadsheet word trackers and timers and dust them off. The fun begins at midnight October 31 as you plow through toward your 50,000 words or 50 hour goal of writing every day for thirty days.

For Writers in the Grove, here are our rules for November’s NaNoWriMo writing event.

  • Write daily from November 1-30 by either committing to write:
    1. 50,000 words (1,667 a day)
    2. Or one hour a day minimum.

You may write however, whenever, whatever you wish. Here are some tips to help you get started.

  • You do not have to write a “book,” whatever “book” means to you.
  • You may write short stories, world building material, character sketches, technical guides, whatever you wish, though working on fiction is the goal of NaNoWriMo, as long as you commit to write toward your end month goal, writing is writing.
  • Pantsers write by the seat of their pants. Plotters write from an outline or plot. Plotsers or Plantsers write a little of both, found to be the most common technique for NaNoWriMo.
  • This isn’t a word game, though it is played like one. It is a head game. Get your head in the writing game and keep writing. If something jumps in your path, either kick it to the curb or confront and deal, but don’t let it stop you writing.
  • You can write anywhere and at any time. If you like writing in a social space, there are a wide range of NaNoWriMo events held around the world, including in Washington and Multnomah Counties of Oregon. There are meetups, write-ins, lock-ins, and a variety of social events to help you write better, longer, and faster, all adding up to the word count or hour tracking goals. If you like writing in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning or before you go to bed in the quiet of your home or office, write then. Are you a commuter? Write while you commute using voice recognition, a tablet, or phone, but only voice while driving, and do so with care.
  • Want to participate but don’t have anything to write about? Writers in the Grove will be releasing a NaNoWriMo prompt of the day during November. We have some great NaNoWriMo prompts from previous years, and years of weekly prompts from our creative writing group meetings for you to find something to get you writing.

Want to join us? Here is how to participate, and each step, other than the writing, is optional.

  • Commit to one hour a day or 50,000 words a day. Pick one.
  • Go to NaNoWriMo. Registration is free. Create a profile, announce your project (make it up if you don’t have one), and read the instructions on how to proceed starting November 1.
  • Set up your writing environment, be it on your computer, tablet, phone, or a location in your home or office.
  • Set up your writing experience. It could be Scrivener (we have a list of great NaNoWriMo project templates and are introducing our own), Word, Pages, a text editor, voice recognition software, whatever you write in. Clean off the keyboard, your mouse, computer monitor screen, your desk, your office, your space. Remove all distractions and leave only inspiration in your writing space.
  • Prepare by creating or working on your outline, collecting prompts, bookmarking creative writing prompt sites (like Writers in the Grove), and/or collecting all the material you need for inspiration.
  • Check out our NaNoWriMo Survival Guide with tips, techniques, lists, inspiration, techniques, prompts, Scrivener project templates, and word tracker spreadsheets.
  • Explore the various Scrivener project templates for NaNoWriMo, including our new one. Select one and set it up with notes, outline, research, and whatever material you nee to keep writing.
  • NaNoWriMo Writers in the Grove Spreadsheet for Word TrackingSelect a word tracker spreadsheet from our list of NaNoWriMo word trackers and spreadsheets. We have a new Writers in the Grove word and hour tracker spreadsheet, and a list of other word trackers.
  • Set your ground rules. Most participants are successful when they set the following ground rules during November:
    • Write only. No editing. None. Zilch. Not even a spell check. N.O. E.D.I.T.I.N.G. PERIOD.
    • No research or a 2-5 minute limit on research per day. Trust yourself. It’s all in your head. Pull it out. Put it down.
    • Keep daily appointments with yourself to write. Block out the times on your calendar and keep them, like a doctor or dentist appointment. Show up even if you don’t want to.
    • Learn how to turn off your phone and internet, and keep it off during your writing appointment time. Seriously.
    • Tell friends, family, and pets that you are not to be disturbed unless guts or bones are exposed to the air. This is an excellent time to teach your family and friends how to live without you for an hour or two a day. If you have to, lock them up before you start. The pets.
  • Create a backup plan. What are you going to write if your brain locks up on what you are writing? Make a list of world building, character sketches, place sketches, experience sketches, subplots, stories within stories, background information, historical timelines, and other material to help you write the stories that aren’t in your story that help define your story. Include a backup list of prompts and completely off topic subjects to write about to help you step away mentally from your story for a breather, then dive right back in again.
  • Find loyal supporters and ass-kickers. We have some great ass-kickers in our Writers in the Grove group, but you need your own if you aren’t a member of a writing group. Tap into your friends, close and long distance, and ask them for a weekly nag or check-in to help you keep going. Find a local or genre group on the NaNoWriMo groups list and introduce yourself.
  • Learn how to add your daily word count to NaNoWriMo. You add the update of your total word count for the month so far, not your daily word count, to the NaNoWriMo word count total.

  • Learn how to verify your final word count to help you complete your goal of 50,000 words in 30 days. Achieve your goal on the NaNoWriMo site and win some great prizes and discounts.

Before you get too overwhelmed, we’ve created a NaNoWriMo Guide featuring all the tutorials, tips, techniques, and prompts we’ve published here on participating in NaNoWriMo. Enjoy.

Using Scrivener for Poetry

The Scrivener Basics Workshop by Writers in the Grove begins September 21, 2017, Thursday at 6:30Pm at the Forest Grove Senior and Community Center in Forest Grove, Oregon. There is still space available.

Scrivener isn’t just for writing and publishing fiction or non-fiction. Many successful poets use the power of Scrivener to not just create their poetry books, but also to track poetry submissions to contests, magazines, and other publishing media.

Here are some resources to learn more about how poets are using Scrivener for their own poetry books and for anthologies.

Writing Tips: Raise or Rise Up!

The following is by Writers in the Grove member, Gretchen Keefer.

Raise or rise up? While both of these verbs indicate upwards motion, the difference is in “what” is going up.

Rise, rose, risen: No objects go up. The subject of the sentence is the only thing moving towards the ceiling or sky. The action stays with the subject only.

Gary rose slowly from the recliner and left the room.

Heat rises.

The sun and moon rise daily.

Joe has risen through the ranks to make CFO at a young age.

Raise, raised, raised: Now, something is going up! “Raise” needs an object to lift or nurture, as in the case of children, crops, and animals. Ask the question “Raise what?” and fill in the blank.

  • Raise your hand.
  • Bettina raised her eyes toward the heavens and shouted in hallelujah!
  • Allison raises horses.
  • Mark’s construction crew raised the new building in record time. (Not to be confused with “raze,” which means taking the building down.)

Writing Tips: Will Everyone Please Sit/Set Down!

The following is by Writers in the Grove member, Gretchen Keefer.

Which do you do?

Set, set, set: This verb is so busy placing objects in various locations, it has no time to alter its tenses.

“Set” wants something to do. There is always a “what” after “set” such as set the table, set your hair, set goals.

After setting her purse on the table, Joan read the mail.

Have you set a date with that cute guy yet?

Set down the knife and raise your hands.

Sit, sat, sat, not standing. Actually, not doing anything. There is no “what” after sit, just a rest from working. No motion, nothing is going anywhere or doing anything. There could be another verb in “-ing” form, and you may use adjectives to describe the length, location, or style of the sit, but no objects follow “sit.”

Gary did not sit long on Janice’s couch. He preferred sitting in the recliner. While sitting there, he fell asleep. Janice sat thinking about Gary. How often has he sat on her recliner sleeping? He never would set a wedding date. Obviously this relationship is going nowhere–

Writing Tips: Is There Dessert in the Desert?

The following is by Writers in the Grove member, Gretchen Keefer.

Dessert is luscious, and often “sickeningly sweet” — hence the two “ss” in dessert.

The desert is too dry to support more than one “s.”

Shift the accent on desert – the place – and you have desert, the action.

The legionnaire de-SER-ted his post in the DES-ert.

Are You Using A Lot A Lot?

Recently I was chastised “a lot” for using “a lot” in my writing. While the vague measurement is now over-used and abused, I was reprimanded to not use a lot a lot. I pass this writing wisdom and grammar greatness onto you.

“A lot” is a piece of property, typically land. It is also used to represent multiple items in a collection at an auction or any collection of items or people. Lot was also the nephew of Abraham whose wife turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back after being specifically instructed against such treachery, which has nothing to do with casting your lot, taking a chance or making a decision based upon the random generation of a number of objects such as pebbles, coins, straw, or dice.

Today’s dictionaries include the definition of “a large number or amount; a great deal; much,” but old English professors still claim that this is an atrocious use of the words, and demand alternatives, as well as removal of the various twisted forms of “a lot” such as alot, lotsa, and lotta, which send spell checkers into a lot of fits.

So what are a lot of alternatives to “a lot?”

Impertinent Remarks by Laura Hale Brockway offered 32 alternatives to help us a lot. They include:

a good deal
a great deal
a large number
ample
bunches
enormous amount
heaps
infinite
loads
many
masses
much
plenty
reams
scads
several
slew
surplus

She also offers example sentences:

“Our style guide does not appear to be used by many people.”
“I try not to ask for any help from the IT Department.”

Thesaurus.com offers these alternatives:

enough
full
abundant
adequate
considerable
copious
countless
endless
everywhere
extravagant
galore
generous
immeasurable
jam-packed
lavish
mega
oodles
profuse
satisfying
sizable
slathers
substantial
sufficient
voluminous

I decided to test out a few more sentences of my own and play around with the various synonyms.

  • He uses the phone a good deal.
  • He uses the phone a great deal.
  • He uses the phone a large number.
  • He uses the phone ample.
  • He uses the phone bunches.
  • He uses the phone an enormous amount.
  • He uses the phone heaps.
  • He uses the phone infinite.
  • He uses the phone loads.
  • He uses the phone many.
  • He uses the phone masses.
  • He uses the phone much.
  • He uses the phone plenty.
  • He uses the phone reams.
  • He uses the phone scads.
  • He uses the phone several.
  • He uses the phone a slew.
  • He uses the phone surplus.
  • He uses the phone enough.
  • He uses the phone full.
  • He uses the phone endless.
  • He uses the phone everywhere.
  • He uses the phone extravagant.
  • He uses the phone jam-packed.
  • He uses the phone lavish.
  • He uses the phone mega.
  • He uses the phone oodles.
  • He uses the phone slathers.
  • He uses the phone substantially.
  • He uses the phone voluminously.

Some worked in this sentence structure, some clearly didn’t. Some are actually very funny.

Let’s try again and incorporate the alternative for “a lot” in a preposition.

  • I avoid asking for a good deal of help with my computer.
  • I avoid asking for a great deal of help with my computer.
  • I avoid asking for a large number of help with my computer.
  • I avoid asking for ample of help with my computer.
  • I avoid asking for bunches of help with my computer.
  • I avoid asking for enormous amount of help with my computer.
  • I avoid asking for heaps of help with my computer.
  • I avoid asking for infinite of help with my computer.
  • I avoid asking for loads of help with my computer.
  • I avoid asking for reams of help with my computer.
  • I avoid asking for scads of help with my computer.
  • I avoid asking for several of help with my computer.
  • I avoid asking for slew of help with my computer.
  • I avoid asking for surplus of help with my computer.
  • I avoid asking for copious of help with my computer.
  • I avoid asking for countless of help with my computer.
  • I avoid asking for endless of help with my computer.
  • I avoid asking for everywhere of help with my computer.
  • I avoid asking for extravagant of help with my computer.
  • I avoid asking for galore of help with my computer.
  • I avoid asking for generous of help with my computer.
  • I avoid asking for immeasurable of help with my computer.
  • I avoid asking for jam-packed of help with my computer.
  • I avoid asking for lavish of help with my computer.
  • I avoid asking for mega of help with my computer.
  • I avoid asking for oodles of help with my computer.
  • I avoid asking for slathers of help with my computer.
  • I avoid asking for voluminously of help with my computer.

Clearly, these synonyms for “a lot” don’t slip right into place as replacements. They take a lot of fuss to make sense out of I avoid asking for jam-packed of help with my computer.. It’s a lot to ask to for every replacement to replace well.

However you search and replace your lots, you shouldn’t have a lot of excuses for using a lot a lot.

How to Write a Tutorial

We are starting a new project featuring Writers in the Grove members only. Our members will be publishing tutorials and writing and publishing on this site to help educate themselves and others. We have some of the most amazingly talented writers, and we are eager to share their wisdom and experiences with you. Stay tuned for some great writing tips, tricks, techniques, and advice. And consider signing up for email notifications from this site when we publish something new so you can keep up with all our goodies.

A tutorial is an educational how-to, informative tip, studied technique, or wise advise. A tutorial on a website is a concise, step-by-step recipe for how to do something.

A tutorial published on the web shouldn’t be an entire guide book on how to do something. It is a taste, a simple instructional process, helping you learn one new thing at a time.

Writing a tutorial is different from writing an essay, poem, or prose in general. It is different from writing most editorial articles. A successful tutorial is written as if the author is sitting down next to the person, guiding them through the process in a simple and gentle fashion.

There is form and structure to writing a tutorial, especially for the web, though its style arose from magazine publishing.

The Tutorial Form and Structure

A tutorial for this website, and websites and magazines in general, is structured at its most simple form as:

  1. Opening paragraphs: Example of someone using this technique, with a little bit of the why. Keep this to no longer than 2-3 paragraphs, one is better.
  2. Explain the why: If it is not clear in the opening, next explain why someone should use this tip, technique, or advice. Keep it to one to two paragraphs.
  3. Ingredients/Tools/Supplies/What you need to know: The next section lists the various things you need to have or know to complete the task. For writers, this could be using a software program, the web, a notebook and pen, specific books, or other items.
  4. Step-by-Step Instructions: Break the process down to individual steps, taking the reader through the process one thing at a time. Use numbered and unnumbered lists for improved readability and clarity. You may also use heading styles to break the steps up as I have done in this article.
  5. Taking it one step further: This section takes the process just one step further, offering an alternative method, a way to expand upon the lesson learned, just a tiny step further in the process to inspire and motivate.
  6. Resources: If the article needs it, add more resources, websites, books, classes, videos, other materials to help the reader learn more about the topic.
  7. Summary (optional): Some writers like to summarize what they just wrote. In the web and in many magazines, the article usually stands alone without a summary, but if you need to, this is where it goes.

What You Need to Know About Writing Web Tutorials

A well-written tutorial begins with the paragraph and not a subtitle or heading. Headings (subtitles) are used throughout the article after the opening paragraphs to break the content up into sections and guide the reader through the information.

Links are used, if appropriate, in a properly and well-formed HTML link. Ensure all links offer specific and related content to support the tutorial’s intentions.

Images are excellent additions. Use them to support specific visual examples. Not every tutorial needs images, but when they do, they are helpful. For this site, size them at 800 pixels (about 4 inches) maximum when you upload them or include them in your submission, and allow them to be resized and aligned right, left, or center appropriately as needed in the article. And please keep them at a small file size, below 100K, as JPG or PNG files.

Consider your audience. What is the least they need to know to do this themselves? Write that.

Keep it simple. Keep it clear.

Have fun. Make this process enjoyable and readers will enjoy the process of learning from you.

For More Information

Jessica Morrell to Speak at Writers Forum in Hillsboro

The fairly new Washington County Writers Forum in Hillsboro, Oregon, will be hosting a Writers Forum event on June 1, 2017, at Insomnia Coffee from 7-8pm. Insomnia Coffe is at 317 E. Main Street in downtown Hillsboro. Suggested admission is $5.

Jessica Morrell is a fabulous author, speaker, and instructor from the Portland area. She offers regular educational workshops for fiction and memoir writers around the area, and speaks at many conferences. She will be covering the writing process from “flash to finish” in this program titled “From Idea to Story.”

Writers in the Grove welcomes the Washington County Writers Forum to our writing community and look forward to some excellent workshops and programs.