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

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

#Review: A MORE PERFECT REUNION — trying to understand our racial history and integrated future

A More Perfect Reunion: Race, Integration, and the Future of America, Calvin Baker

I picked up A More Perfect Reunion: Race, Integration, and the Future of America by Calvin Baker on Audible, because I felt like I needed to learn more about the current (ongoing) fight for equality in the US, and hear from more black voices.

Baker’s book was a great place to start.

Continue reading “#Review: A MORE PERFECT REUNION — trying to understand our racial history and integrated future”

Book Review: FROM SILK TO SILICON and a Brief History of Globalization

Last week, I caught up with some history reading, which is always fun.

From Silk to Silicon: The Story of Globalization Through Ten Extraordinary Lives tells the stories of ten people who somehow pushed the boundaries of globalization and whose impacts we still feel today. Continue reading “Book Review: FROM SILK TO SILICON and a Brief History of Globalization”

How Do You Organize Your World-Building Canon?

As I write “Survivor”, my not-officially-titled duology, I keep thinking about how I might be able to organize my world-building canon better.

Most of what I’ve written in my fantasy universe has been in The Warden of Everfeld stories, of which I have one novel published and one in draft. “Survivor” is the first story that does not overlap WoEM, but shares some of its history and geography with those novels. And I want to make sure that what I write in one doesn’t contradict the other.

So, how do you organize your world-building canon? Continue reading “How Do You Organize Your World-Building Canon?”

#Review: THE ENCIRCLING SEA Continues to Intrigue in Roman Britannia

36350564. sy475 The Encircling Sea is the second book in Adrian Goldsworthy’s historical fiction epic about the Roman presence in Northern Britannia.

I listened to the first book in the seriesVindolanda, on Audible last month, and it was not a difficult decision for me to jump right into the second.

The Encircling Sea is an excellent sequel that establishes its own narrative while clearly connecting its characters and its plot lines to the first story. Continue reading “#Review: THE ENCIRCLING SEA Continues to Intrigue in Roman Britannia”

#Review: VINDOLANDA Hit All the Hallmarks of Historical Fiction

I love finding great things in unexpected places.

Vindolanda is the first in a series of historical fiction novels about the Roman Empire in Britain circa 98 CE.

I found this novel when searching for books about the Celtic goddess Brigantia. Not exactly related, but what I found was a compelling fictional story that had the detailed approach of a history book. Continue reading “#Review: VINDOLANDA Hit All the Hallmarks of Historical Fiction”

#AmConsuming: A Sudden Dearth of Consuming Time

June has been a tough month for my consumption of various media. I started my new job two weeks ago, and I’ve spent most of that time trying to hone my daily routine.

That means things like binge-watching Netflix or Hulu and even reading–unfortunately–have fallen by the wayside for now. But I’ve still managed to check some things off my list. Continue reading “#AmConsuming: A Sudden Dearth of Consuming Time”

Exploring Úr’Dan: The Firelands and the Northern Uplands

With all of the narrative shifts, outlining, and pondering I’ve done about The Warden of Everfeld: Legacy and related stories recently, I wanted to revive my world-building series.

And boy was I shocked to find that I haven’t written an Exploring Úr’Dan post in over a year! Here’s a refresher for all of us (myself included) of the fantastical ground we’ve covered previously:

Continue reading “Exploring Úr’Dan: The Firelands and the Northern Uplands”

Blog Rewind: My Philosophy of Ice and Fire

Nearly two years ago, in anticipation of season 7 of Game of Thrones, I wrote a piece about what I view as the philosophy of the books and show.

At the time, I was excited to see how the show would tidily wrap up all of its weaving plot threads in two unnecessarily truncated seasons. Oh, how naive I was.

Still, it wouldn’t be ethical of me to espouse philosophical theories about a fictional universe and not actually revisit them at the story’s conclusion. Let’s see how my predictions panned out in the wake of the series finale!

Beware! Here be spoilers…

Continue reading “Blog Rewind: My Philosophy of Ice and Fire”