The Quintessential World-Building Tool

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

If you know anything about me, you probably know that I like to use spreadsheets to organize myself, whether it’s story outlines, word count trackers (until recently), or timelines, the spreadsheet is my bread-and-butter organization tool.

So you’d better damn believe I have a spreadsheet laying out the entire millennia-spanning timeline of my fantasy universe, Úr’Dan.

Which brings me to the quintessential world-building tool, in my view: the Historical Timeline.

The Historical Timeline

When I talk about a historical timeline as a world-building tool, I’m not really referring to the timeline as a tool for the reader. It is a tool for you, the writer, to aid in your efforts to give depth to your fantasy universe.

Even if you only have a few key events laid out that underpin your fantasy universe — a recent war, a plague that is sweeping the countryside, or the death of a prominent figure — it is essential that you understand not just how and why these events happened, but when.

And a simple timeline, or an outline of a timeline, can help you organize key events to tell your story accurately. After all, referencing historical events in the course of your story through dialogue or, where appropriate, exposition adds greater depth to your fantasy universe, but only if you can consistently describe when and how something happened.

My Historical Timeline

As I said at the top, I use a spreadsheet to organize a millennia-spanning historical timeline for my entire fantasy universe, called Úr’Dan. This spreadsheet is organized into four columns:

  • Year, or whatever reckoning of time is used in your fantasy universe. There are actually four distinct calendars used in Úr’Dan, so my timeline references each.
  • Name of the event. How is this event known in your story? Consider whether different groups refer to the same event by different names.
  • Peoples involved, referring to which larger ethno-cultural groups in my story were involved in or impacted by a particular event.
  • Description, providing just a few sentences summarizing what the event was, and maybe what it’s immediate impact was.

Additionally, I use color-coding to provide a quick visual differentiator between general types of events:

  • Events referred to only in myth or legend
  • Wars, battles, or other conflicts
  • Founding or construction of cities, fortifications, or other significant places
  • Birth/Death of prominent figures
  • Treaties or alliances
  • Other significant events, trends, discoveries. This is a catch-all category that can include things like mass migrations of people, the invention or prevalent use of a particular type of technology, or notable weather events.

Finally, I also include rows for each of my stories, just so it’s obvious where they each fit into my timeline.

All told, I have 91 rows in my timeline so far, spanning about 1,000 years of “history”, plus significant events of myth, such as those covered in my mythology of Úr’Dan. Many of these events are focused on a few ethno-cultural groups or time periods that I’ve already put a lot of thought into, so one of my ongoing goals is to add more events and flesh out the histories of all of the peoples of my fantasy universe.

The more historical events you can talk about from your timeline, the more space you have for potential stories.

Steve D

Balancing Reader Feedback with Story Constraints

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

Today I wanted to bring up an interesting conundrum I’ve been facing as I write the third draft of Uprooted, The Herb Witch Tales #1. In a story that is effectively about how one family — and one woman in particular — deals with her entire life being upended, I’m now trying to add more characters.

Uprooted is also a novella. I only intend for it to be 35k-40k words if I can help it, so adding more characters seems counter-intuitive on the surface.

Alpha Reader Feedback

Back in December I asked a couple people to read the second draft of this story and provide some feedback. One of my readers gave me great feedback that I’ve really tried to take to heart in this rewrite.

She said that in settings like mine — a small village in a firmly patriarchal society and culture — the characters would likely have much stronger kinship ties than I had demonstrated in my draft. I focused intensely on the nuclear family of my characters, but that left this reader asking about their immediate relatives, cousins, siblings. aunts and uncles, and the like.

The crux of the story is that tragedy strikes this village, causing my characters to flee. With this now expanded family dynamic, my characters are not as isolated as they had been, but the dynamics of their struggle change. They now have to feed 10 or 15 mouths rather than three or four.

But that’s also 10 or 15 more names to keep track of as the story progresses.

Too Many Characters?

I agreed 100% with this feedback, and I built out a family tree for my protagonist’s family and their clan. This meant that I had to explain what happened to a lot of those family members alongside the more immediate narrative of my characters. What I’ve noticed is that in my third draft, I have to decide when to talk about these extended family members, and when to leave them out.

It should be obvious that the larger clan is still traveling together, and I don’t want to have to list the actions of every single member each day. But I also don’t want to ignore these characters’ existence. After all, they make up the immediate support system for my primary character. She needs them, and thus the reader needs to know something about them.

So I’ve had to figure out how to balance these additional tertiary characters within the more personal plotlines of the three or four characters who really drive the story. If I were writing a full-length novel, I could consider POV sections for a few of these tertiary characters, but Uprooted is not that type of story.

My general rule of thumb has been twofold:

  1. Take a quick tally of the family as they’re moving or something is changing so we (both the reader and I) know where they are.
  2. Try to include these family members in particular scenes, even if they’re just in the background or only offer one line of dialogue.

I think/hope that this makes it clear that these characters are important to the larger family dynamics, but doesn’t overwhelm the reader with too many names to remember.

Discussion Time!

How do you feel about tertiary characters in a novella? How many is too many?

Steve D

Story Lessons from THE LORD OF THE RINGS, part 3

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

After some lackluster reading recently, I am embarking on an epic quest: to reread The Lord of the Rings! I will not be reviewing these stories in a critical sense, because how could I? Instead, I will share some storytelling insights I pick up as I go along.

This will be primarily focused on the books, but I will also reference the films by Peter Jackson to compare the stories as they are told between these two media. See part 1 and part 2.

It’s been nearly two months since my last entry in this mini-series, so I thought I’d provide some additional thoughts. I am almost halfway through The Return of the King and only just now realizing that I read through all of The Two Towers without a single post like this. Oh well. I’ll try to highlight some story lessons from the last book-and-a-half and then perhaps wrap up this mini-series once I’ve completed book three.

Like last time, I’m just going to jump in. I’ll try to keep these in chronological order relative to the sections/chapters that inspired them.

Glimpses of the Wider World

Tolkien is obviously known for his world-building prowess, but I think there are several examples of this that are not talked about often, and which particularly intrigued me.

The first is several references between books 2 and 3 to the “war in the north”, a large assault that Sauron sent from the Black Gate to the kingdoms of Dale and Erebor, where the descendants of Dane and Bard had to hold their own against virtual annihilation. I haven’t yet read the appendices at the end of The Return of the King, but I know this is referenced somewhere in there.

Still, it’s astonishing to me that a massive part of the War of the Ring is mentioned only in passing. I want to read about the war in the north! Can you imagine how long this series would have been if Tolkien had actually included the different battlefronts? That would have been at least two additional books.

Anyway, I think this point is lost on movie viewers. Peter Jackson’s films, by necessity, focus on the immediate battles shown in the books, but to casual viewers, it makes it seem like the war was fought and won in exactly two battles — four if you count the skirmishes between Faramir’s forces and the Haradrim, and the last defense of Osgiliath.

The second time I really felt the wider world was in the third book when the Rohirrim are marching to Gondor. They apss through the woods, where Wild Men guide them in secret past additional forces Sauron had sent into Rohan, thus allowing them to reach Minas Tirith in the midst of its siege.

Story Lessons

  1. Demonstrate scale of events, not just place. In a previous post I mentioned the sense of scale of the world itself, such as a 10-day journey to pass over/under one mountain. The first example I mentioned above, the “war in the north”, lends scale of a different sort to the story. This is a scale of events. This massive war, the one that would define the end of the Third Age of Middle Earth and set the stage for the Fourth, had to have more than just a few battles or a few primary actors. Even though we don’t get much detail about the defense of Dale and Erebor against Sauron, the fact that we hear about it tells us that this is not just a war for Gondor. It truly is a war for all of Middle Earth, and the Free Peoples are too scattered to fight side-by-side. This is a war of immense proportions, and Tolkien allows the reader to imagine what that looked like.
  2. Diversity within smaller geographic regions. I think this is a point that a lot of fantasy misses. Most peoples in a given region or “nation” are shown as monolithic cultures with little internal diversity, unless the story is specifically detailing internal political strife between different groups. “The Ride of the Rohirrim” shows us that although Rohan is a powerful kingdom, they are not the only cultural group within their own borders. The Wild Men have a history of conflict with both Rohan and Gondor, but they find common cause against the orcs that are rampaging across Rohan.

Characters Who Feel Too Small for the Moment

In the chapters leading up to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, both Merry and Pippin express to various characters that this coming war feels too big for them to have any real part. This is exemplified in Pippin’s offer of service to Denethor, where he admits that his service may be of little use to the Steward of Gondor, and when Merry pleads with Theoden to allow him to ride with the Rohirrim to battle and is subsequently denied.

Not only did these characters feel the dread leading up to the battle, but they also could not believe their experiences after the fact. Pippin sits with Merry in “The Houses of Healing”, where Merry expresses his own insignificance in this war:

Still there are things deeper and higher; and not a gaffer could tend his garden in peace but for them, whether he knows about them or not.”

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Return of the King, Ballantine Books, 1965, pp. 179.

Story Lessons

  1. Allow your characters to feel emotional distress in the moment. Even in the lead-up to the war and the immediate aftermath, when there is still much for the characters to accomplish, these moments of both vulnerability and uncertainty of their own place in the story makes them feel relatable. How could we expect a hobbit from the cozy, protected country of the Shire to fully grasp a conflict of this scale, even as they are witnessing an event as momentous as the return of the King to Gondor. I think this is what endears the hobbits to readers so much. They are the most human of all the characters because of these vulnerabilities.
  2. Allow your characters to feel the weight of their actions after the fact. I always enjoy retrospective moments from characters in stories, a chance for both the character and the reader to process what has happened. These scenes often reveal much more about the characters than the more action-packed scenes that usually precede them. I think they also help maintain the emotional tone of the story. After several chapters of speeches and foreboding and war songs, a simple conversation between two friends helps the reader marvel at the previous 100+ pages of politicking and battle.

I intended for this post to be shorter than previous installments and it somehow ended up longer. I’m cutting myself off.

Steve D

Story Lessons from THE LORD OF THE RINGS, part 2

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

After some lackluster reading recently, I am embarking on an epic quest: to reread The Lord of the Rings! I will not be reviewing these stories in a critical sense, because how could I? Instead, I will share some storytelling insights I pick up as I go along.

This will be primarily focused on the books, but I will also reference the films by Peter Jackson to compare the stories as they are told between these two media. See part 1 here.

I finished reading The Fellowship of the Ring over the weekend, and I was eager to jump right into The Two Towers. Instead, I decided to take a couple days and absorb The Fellowship in its own right. So this post is just a collection of thoughts through the rest of that novel.

Description

This one may seem kind of obvious to anyone who has read or heard anything about Tolkien’s world. If nothing else, he is known for world-building. His intricate description of the land through which his characters travel provides a vivid image in the reader’s mind and sets the scene for every interaction with the characters.

Has this imagery been informed in my mind by the stunning New Zealand landscapes used in the filming of The Lord of the Rings? Definitely. But Tolkien’s descriptions also serve the story.

In Book II, Chapters 3 and 6 — “The Ring Goes South” and “Lothlorien”, respectively — the Company first try to pass over the mountain of Caradhras, and then manage to pass under it. As they approach the mountain from the west, hope to traverse its high pass, the peak glares at them red-stained in the morning sunlight, a warning of the peril they are about to face. The mountain defeats them with a mighty snowstorm and rockslide that only seems to occur on the narrowest spot of the pass as they try to cross.

Three chapters later the Company emerges from Moria on the east side of the mountain. As they continue southward towards Lothlorien, they give one last look to the mountain that caused them so much suffering, both at its height and in its very depths. Now, Caradhras glows with golden sunlight, as if mocking them with its serenity.

I don’t need an illustration to picture the foreboding peak of Caradhras in my mind, and the colors that evoke so much emotion to the characters in a single glance.

Story Lessons

  1. Description of the environment can evoke scale. Although only a matter of days passes between the two images of Caradhras, that book-end demonstrates how much the Company has been through in that time. It also shows how far the Company has to travel just to get to the other side of the mountain, thus scaling out the world and making the journey ahead seem all the more arduous.
  2. Description of the environment can reflect the characters’ emotions. As in the example above, the mirrored descriptions of Caradhras also mirror how the Company feels about it: first as a symbol of foreboding, and then as a symbol of mockery, even shame for what they lost by passing under the mountain, rather than over it.

Presence

I think it can be too easy sometimes to get caught up in the action or the drama of a story and keep the plot surging forward. This up-tempo pace can be enthralling for a reader, but sometimes it’s just as important to let the characters, and the reader, breathe.

One of the most effecting sections of The Fellowship for me came during such a moment, when Aragorn speaks to Frodo about Lothlorien:

‘Here is the heart of Elvendom on earth,’ he said, ‘and here my heart dwells ever, unless there be a light beyond the dark roads that we still must tread, you and I. Come with me!’ And taking Frodo’s hand in his, he left the hill of Cerin Amroth and came there never again as living man.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring, Ballantine Books, 1965, pp. 456.

This quote does two things. First, it gives both Aragorn and Frodo a sense of presence within the story. After several chapters of danger and suspense, they come at last to place where they can rest. It’s thus natural that the characters would want to pause and marvel at their ethereal surroundings. Secondly, the end of this section implies a dark road for Aragorn and forces the reader to ask: why does he never return? Where does his journey take him that he can never see Cerin Amroth again?

Story Lesson

  1. Use a characters’ present moments to punctuate their arc. To put the above another way, I think it’s often in quiet moments that a character feels their sense of place within a story, within their world. It also allows the reader to step back, briefly, from the immediate plot and see their characters as more than just actors in a particular scene; here especially, Aragorn feels like a living soul whose present and future are wrapped into this singular moment of wonder and awe. He has a life to lead, and we are catching only a glimpse of his journey.

This post is (slightly) shorter than part 1, and this definitely does not represent everything I am taking from The Fellowship of the Ring. I just wanted to share some things that really jumped out to me.

Onto The Two Towers!

Steve D

Story Lessons from THE LORD OF THE RINGS, part 1

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

After some lackluster reading the last month or so, I am embarking on an epic quest: to reread The Lord of the Rings! I will not be reviewing these stories in a critical sense, because how could I? Instead, I will share some storytelling insights I pick up as I go along.

This will be primarily focused on the books, but I will also reference the films by Peter Jackson to compare the stories as they are told between these two media.

Spoilers ahoy.

Continue reading “Story Lessons from THE LORD OF THE RINGS, part 1”

Seeing the Story Trees for the World-Building Forest

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

I already don’t like that strained analogy of a title, but we’re going with it unless I can think of something better. The writing part of my brain pretty reliably ebbs and flows between two points. Sometimes, all I can think about is the story in front of me and how I can bring it to fruition. Other times, all I can think of is all the stories except the one immediately in front of me.

I’ve been pretty heads-down on part 2 of The Herb Witch Tales the last few weeks, but recently, my mindset and thought process has started to shift. This is a natural phase for me, but it’s helped me come to a bigger realization about my writing. I need to focus more on the stories themselves. Continue reading “Seeing the Story Trees for the World-Building Forest”

The Third Draft is Coming

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

I’ve decided recently that my first part of The Herb Witch Tales will definitely need a third draft. Not just revisions, mind you. I’ll likely rewrite the story in a new document from the start.

As I’ve progressed on part 2 of this duology, I’ve continued to think about some of the incredible suggestions my beta readers made. They will help me enrich the world and get the most out of my characters.

But it’s not to get distracted by one story while trying to draft another. I’m about halfway through the first draft of my as yet untitled part 2 of The Herb Witch Tales, but I write it knowing that certain things will be changing. Nothing major, but the relationships between certain characters will. I think some of the finer details about the setting will.

So why have I not given up on this first draft? Because I’m currently trying to solve the problem of what this specific story is really about. If I stop now, in the middle of that crucial process, I may not be able to recapture that same train of thought. As soon as I’m finished with my current draft, I’m going to return to part 1 and rewrite it. That means a full rewrite of part 2 as well, but I’m good with that.

Writing two stories of a series simultaneously, as I’m learning, means having the opportunity to make both stories as good as possible. I’ll probably be going back and forth between these until they’re both finished, no matter how many rounds of rewrites or revisions I have to do. I still intend for part 2 to stand on its own as a story, so striking that balance may be difficult.

I’m also learning that letting a draft simmer for a bit, especially with feedback waiting to be resolved, really helps the writing process. I feel fully confident now that I can return to part 1 and make it better, because I’ve given myself ample time to just ponder on it.

Really, I just came here to say that I’m buckling in for an extended drafting and revision process for these stories. I still want to publish this year, and I know I can do so, but I really won’t be able to publish part 1 until part 2 is also ready to go.

Short post today, mainly because I started two other completely different posts before deciding to write this one. At least I already have ideas for next week!

Steve D

Exercise 10: A terrible thing to do

I know it is already Thursday, but this week was just too stressful to post any sooner – and besides, a writing exercise seemed unimportant compared to the elections in the U.S. The continuing uncertainty is still stressful, but I have gotten a bit more used to it. So, to pass the time, here is the last of the writing exercises from Steering the Craft.

Chapter 10 is called “Crowding and Leaping” and deals with narrative flow and what details an author includes and what they leave out. One line from the chapter that I particularly like was: “Some say God is in the details; some say the Devil is in the details. Both are correct.” Page 118

Le Guin also says that there isn’t really an exercise she could come up with on this topic – it is such a fluid thing and unique to each story (and storyteller). So for a final exercise, she gives us “a terrible thing to do.”

“Exercise 10: A Terrible Thing To Do

Take one of the longer narrative exercises you wrote – any one that went over 400 words – and cut it by half.

If none of the exercises is suitable, take any piece of narrative prose you have ever written, 400-1000 words, and do this terrible thing to it.

This doesn’t mean just cutting a bit here and there, snipping and pruning – though that’s part of it…” Steering the Craft, Page 124

I chose the 1285 word short story I wrote for Exercise 4: Again and Again and Again. To see the original, full length story, go here to that post. I was able to edit it down to 628 words…so here is the shorter short story!

Continue reading “Exercise 10: A terrible thing to do”

The NaNoWriMo Plan, 2020 Edition

It’s kind of ridiculous to think that I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month each year since 2014. Only once have I achieved writing 50,000 words in one month, but I can’t not participate, even if it’s a last-second decision.

This year was another last-second decision, but I’m excited. Continue reading “The NaNoWriMo Plan, 2020 Edition”

3 Tips for Writing Snappy Dialogue

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

The more I write, the more I find I enjoy writing dialogue. The interplay of characters can be really engaging and tends to liven up the story — and the writing process — for me.

However, it can still be a challenge to write dialogue that is both meaningful and compelling. As a reader, dialogue that drones on is somehow worse than long stretches of exposition. So I just wanted to provide a few tips for writing snappy dialogue that moves the story forward and keeps the reader interested. Continue reading “3 Tips for Writing Snappy Dialogue”