Tuesday, May 29, 2018

What's Missing From This World? You! (Brian Katcher)

Image result for back to the future vanish

Now I pretty much only write contemporary YA, so it's not like I have a lot of world building to do. Sure, I can create cities and schools and people, but at the end of the day, they all take place in our world. Denver is still the capital of Colorado, hydrogen is still the lightest element, and Donald Trump is still the 45th president....sigh...

But there is one radical difference in all my books. One thing that changes from my universe to the book's universe. In my novels, I don't exist. Brian Katcher doesn't live there.

I first thought about this idea after reading a short story by Robert Bloch (author of Psycho) called 'The Plot is the Thing.' A woman is sucked into a reality where all movie creatures, such as Frankenstein's monster and Dracula are real. And when she goes to the library, there are no books by Mary Shelley or Bram Stoker. When the creations are real, the creators are not.

It's kind of eerie if you think about it. In my world, where my characters live and love and have adventures, I do not exist. This goes for any author. True, like Clive Cussler, I'm guilty of tossing in the occasional author avatar. And Kurt Vonnegut explored the idea of the author trapped in his own creation in Breakfast of Champions. But no matter what worlds I build, Brian Katcher, father, school librarian, and part-time writer, does not exist in my books. Every author of fiction ultimately writes themselves out of existence. To write is to negate oneself. 

So every time you sit down to start a new book, just remember that you are, in effect, destroying yourself. And that's what makes the creative process so delightful!

Oh, and go out and reach Robert Bloch's stuff. Very underrated horror writer.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Build a Better World by Dean Gloster

            I’ve thought a lot about world-building lately, unrelated to fiction. The truth is, all of us—not just writers—world-build all the time: We decide who to choose as a life partner (or not); what friends, activities, and information sources will surround us.
            In the United States we’re also still allowed to vote and to speak out. So we even have an impact on our future world. When I say “we” I especially mean young people and those of us who write for them.
Help heal the broken world. Please.
            I always wanted to be a writer, but I took a decades-long detour as a lawyer first, which let me save some money. So now I get to do what I always wanted, write novels. I love books. I love stories. I love the craft of fiction. I admire writers and I love hanging out with them.
            What I don’t like is authoritarian regimes that lie, demonize immigrants, shoot unarmed people, and lose over 1475 children—some of whom were sent to human traffickers—after ripping those children away from their parents at the border in violation of international law.
           As writers, we create empathy simply by telling engaging stories. But in circumstances like ours today, I think we should do more to build a better world.

            This is my father, Dean Francis Gloster. When he was seventeen, during WWII, three of his high school buddies wanted to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps, and they tried to persuade my dad to join them. At the time, Marines were getting killed by the thousands in the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific, and so my dad agreed—but only if they all joined the Navy instead. The four of them drove from Alturas, California, to the nearest Navy enlistment center. Only my dad passed the physical, so he was the only one who enlisted.
            Joining up changed my dad’s life. He was the first member of his family to go to college, which he went through on the G.I. bill, and he completed his military service, so unlike some others, he wasn’t drafted to fight in the Korean War five years later.
            His service also, eventually, helped kill him.
            My father died in 2006, drowning in air that his lungs couldn’t extract oxygen from anymore, because of COPD complicated by asbestosis. His pulmonologist asked if he’d ever worked around asbestos or been in the ship-building industry. I said he’d been in the Navy.
            “Oh,” his pulmonologist said. “That’s probably where he got it.”
            So my dad joined the Navy to fight the Nazis and their allies, and it eventually killed him.
            You can probably guess how I feel about Nazi sympathizers today.
Some “fine people on both sides” as identified by U.S. President Trump
            Unless you’re J.K. Rowling (and the rest of us aren’t) writers are not celebrities. But we do have visibility in a way that accountants and actuaries don’t. (It would be a strange world where insurance brokers were paid to do school visits.) Writers are told to “build our platform,” a presence on social media. Once we have a platform, though, shouldn’t we use it for something?
Platforms should be used for more than ritual sacrifices of adverbs
            As a writer, I have over 100,000 more Twitter followers than I did as a lawyer. And more visibility and more opportunity to teach and to do school visits to talk to young people. So I speak out on issues important to young people and urge them to register and to vote. Young people are less racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic than the generation I grew up in, or any generation before them. I hope they will save us and build a better world.

            I wish I could tell you, fellow writers, that if you do the right thing and spend your energy speaking out to build a better world, it will improve your individual life, rather than just the collective good. Unfortunately, the truth is that few good deeds go unpunished. That’s why we have ethics and morality—the right thing is different than the expedient thing. But social media mavens urge us to be our authentic selves online, and part of what I’m about is opposing deadly racism, toxic masculinity, and resurgent authoritarianism. So I bring that to my online life and in-person communications. But it’s unpaid work, it’s somewhat thankless, and I don’t want to become that screechy guy on the Internet. I don’t always get the balance right.
            Today is Memorial Day, when in the United States we honor those who died for our country to preserve our freedom to choose our own government leaders rather than the one selected by a foreign despot. We remember those who sacrificed so that we can enjoy our Constitutional rights to freedom of the press, equal protection of the laws, separation of powers, and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment—all of which are under attack now by the regime in power in our country.
            It’s a small thing, losing a few Twitter followers over speaking up. So many in our country have lost so much more so that we still have the opportunity to do that.
            Wishing you a thoughtful and somber Memorial Day. Speak out and vote.
Dean Gloster received an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2017. He is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out now from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Jesse Andrews's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” Dean is on Twitter: @deangloster

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Word by word, a world (Jennifer R. Hubbard)

One element of world-building I like to emphasize is the need to establish a setting word by word. It isn’t just about creating a time and place for the characters to inhabit; it’s about creating an atmosphere with every word.

For example, if you want to describe something red in your scene using a simile, you might say:
red as a garnet
red as spilled blood
red as rotten tomatoes splitting in the sun
red as ripe strawberries
red as a clown’s nose

Each of these sets a different tone. The garnet suggests jewels and elegance; the blood threat and danger; the clown’s nose humor or absurdity. The ripe strawberries are luscious, but the rotting tomatoes suggest decay and unpleasantness. A narrator describing his new love interest would probably not compare the shade of her lipstick to rotting tomatoes or a clown’s nose ... and if he does, the author is signaling wildly to the reader that something is off about this relationship. Maybe the new love interest is really sinister, or the narrator is, or maybe this is a comic novel that will upend our expectations about romance.

We don’t just build stage sets; we show how our characters respond to their surroundings. Is the elegant restaurant in your story intimidating to the characters, or is it their happy place, or is it a facade for the chaotic back kitchen where your characters spend most of their time? Readers will discover those answers in whether you show fraying threads on the drapes or a spot on the silverware. In the bathroom, hunched over that pregnancy test, what is your character hoping to discover, and how does that eagerness or dread affect the way she inhabits that space? Is the basketball court the place where your character rushes to play and hang out with her friends, or is it a grim endurance test in a weekly gym class? Characters who approach the same place with different attitudes will notice very different details and will use very different words to describe them, and the author’s word choices have the same responsibility.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Good World-Building is the Best Gift (Courtney McKinney-Whitaker)

The most important thing I know about world-building is that you have to do it.

There's no skipping it, even if you're writing contemporary fiction, or heck, even if you're writing contemporary nonfiction.

I often see world-building treated like it's reserved for fantasy or science fiction, but whenever you write a novel, or a memoir, or whatever, you're inviting readers to enter the world you've created, which is definitely a different world from the one your reader lives in (unless your book is a memoir and they actually lived it with you). Even different high schools in the same town have different cultures.

But world-building isn't a chore. Done right, it can be really fun to design the details of your characters' lives and interesting to try out things that are part of their world.

What do your characters eat? Eat that.
What books have they read? Read them.
What games do they play? Play them.
What music do they listen to? Listen to it.
How do they get in touch with other people? Try that. (If you can. I'm sure George R.R. Martin doesn't send people ravens and J.K. Rowling doesn't send letters by owl.)

I appreciate good world-building so much, especially in these rough times, when sometimes I just want to step out of this world and into another one for a while. What a gift you're giving your reader—to take them out of their world and immerse them in the one you've created, for a little while.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Creating a World from Scratch…Or Not (Brenda Hiatt)

As you probably know, some degree of world-building is necessary for any piece of fiction, since no one wants to read about people operating in a vacuum. For contemporary settings, details like streets, shops, clothes, food, transportation and local flavor can either be looked up (for a real town or city) or made up (for fictitious ones) based on real, similar locales. 
Historical romance novels presented me with a slightly bigger challenge—especially since the internet was still in its infancy when I started. I had to do a ton of research (yes, out of actual books) before I could create authentic settings for my characters. I had to know what my heroes and heroines would wear, eat, say, do…you get the idea. With those books I used real places and events from the past as my jumping-off point for my fictional story worlds, keeping in mind that Regency readers really know their stuff and would spot any errors in a heartbeat.
When I switched to YA science fiction romance a few years ago, I faced a whole different challenge. Though the first book, Starstruck, takes place in our familiar world, I knew future books in the series would not. Because of that, I wanted to make my heroine’s ordinary world feel as real as possible, to provide maximum contrast to the more fantastical world(s) she would experience later on. I visited numerous small towns in north-central Indiana, borrowing features from several of them to create my heroine’s (fictitious) hometown of Jewel, Indiana, with its own streets, shops, churches, public spaces, etc. To keep myself consistent, I sketched out this (very) rough map of Jewel:

Partly because it had a great website, I used one particular high school as a sort of template for Jewel High, where much of the action in the first two books take place. That school’s athletic schedule, academic offerings, calendar and other publicly available info was incredibly useful whenever I needed those sorts of details (which was often).

In book two, Starcrossed, I expanded on the few details my heroine had already learned about the secret underground colony on Mars that would become increasingly important to her. Little by little, I created a whole new “world” with its own history, system of government, traditions, and more. I even made up a language, based loosely on ancient Gaelic. Long before my heroine actually visited that world in book three, I sketched out my own map of Nuath for reference. I’m no artist (as you can see) but this map helped give me a feel for population density, villages vs cities, and how topography and culture intersected.

Though I built my futuristic Martian colony basically from scratch, I used a lot of familiar reference points to help ground the reader (and myself) when introducing its more fantastical features. That allowed my heroine to compare things like a monarchy, mag-lev trains, holo-displays and food recombinators with our own government, modes of travel, entertainment, and kitchen gadgets while navigating an unfamiliar environment. As is almost always the case, there's a LOT more to my fictional world than will ever show up in the pages of a book, but that's part of what keeps things real. All that extra stuff also gives me material from which I can create bonus goodies for my diehard fans (much of which is available at my website).
World building can obviously be a lot of work, but all those little details are what makes a story world come alive—for the author, the characters, their story and, ultimately, the reader. For both my historical and science fiction romances, my main world-building goal is to create worlds my readers will want to return to, book after book.  

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Building Sets for Stories by Patty Blount

When I write, I think in terms of "scenes." When I shift the location or the point-of-view character, that's when I begin a new scene.

Scenes help me organize my stories, help me visualize them. I begin by orientating my readers. I write contemporary novels, so there's no magic happening, which requires authors to invent the physics of their worlds. So in a way, I've got it much easier than my paranormal and fantasy author colleagues. But in another way, I've got it harder because my worlds have to feel real.

That's an important concept -- feel real, not be real. And when the most popular piece of writing advice you get is "write what you know," that's tough to do unless you've been to a specific place. Let's be real (Ha!), first-hand research isn't always possible and when you're juggling a day job and family on top of writing, it's that much harder.

When I'm going for realism, I turn to Pinterest. I have boards for nearly all of my novels. There's a scene in SOME BOYS that takes place in one of the secondary characters' basement playrooms. I found a pin that depicted the basement I envisioned and "wrote to it." By this, I mean I kept that image on my screen while I conceived the scene. That helps me remember the details -- is the TV mounted on the wall or perched on a cabinet? Is the sectional sofa a left-hand or right-hand turn?

Seeing a space I'm going to use as a setting also helps me determine how my characters move within that space. Can my six-foot-tall hero cross that room in two paces or will it take him five?

Another technique I use is to try and find blog posts or Yelp reviews about the real places I find on Pinterest. This helps me add 'flavor.' But -- and this is a cautionary warning -- if I use a real place, I never show it in a negative way.

For example, three of my novels were based on my actual school district, but because they dealt with topics like bullying, school violence, sexual assault and victim-blaming, I fictionalized them because I didn't want the district believing I was casting dispersions. And because my local fire department never returned my calls when I was researching NOTHING LEFT TO BURN, I ended up basing my fictional Juniors program on that of three different fire departments.

In a still-unpublished story called THE SKY WAS SCARLET, the hero has just inherited his dad's '69 Pontiac GTO. It's a convertible. I couldn't find out online if the convertible ever had shoulder belts in that year. Shoulder belts were just coming out back then but in a convertible? I couldn't tell. I turned to Pinterest and found some car interior shots to use. Another thing that helped me is finding out how to raise and lower the top -- where was the switch located? Pinterest helped me answer these questions.

While not precisely world-building in the commonly understood sense, 'set design' for fiction is nevertheless an essential ingredient in the writing process. I hope this tip helps you design yours.

Monday, May 21, 2018


There’s a whole world inside each of our characters. I think that world is what often brings us to fiction in the first place. I think written work lets us, as readers, inside a character’s head in a way no other method of storytelling every really does. In movies or theater, we see a character navigating through a problem, but we often don’t hear directly from those characters. We get dialogue, sure, but we’re not inside their heads, and we’re not hearing their thoughts.

Not like we do in fiction, anyway. In fiction, we do get to hear characters’ thoughts. I think it’s why we so often feel so close to fictional characters, why flipping the last page feels like losing a friend.

I often think the best worldbuilding, then, is the worldbuilding that gives us the setting and surroundings through the eyes of a character. Each time it rains or a character meets someone new or goes to a new location, we get closer to that character if we can see all of the settings and weather and people through their eyes. That way, the outer world that surrounds the main character isn’t backdrop, it helps the reader understand who they are—their wants, fears, motivation. If we as readers know how a book’s main character views the others in his / her life, how they view social structures, how they view their own place in the world, we understand why they’re acting a certain way. In fact, we might even begin to empathize to such an extent that we root for them when they’re acting bizarrely or selfishly—because we so thoroughly understand where they’re coming from.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Pretty In Pennsylvania [Laurie Boyle Crompton]

So far, all of my published novels have taken place in small towns: the first two in Pennsylvania, and the more recent two in upstate New York. Since I grew up in a quintessential small town; Butler, PA it could be (easily) argued that my story setting choices are inspired by pure laziness. And since my next book PRETTY IN PUNXSUTAWNEY boasts of it's small Pennsylvania town location RIGHT IN THE TITLE, and because Punxsutawney, PA is a mere stones-throw from Butler, PA one could (easily) argue that laziness is an ongoing trend in this author's life. And overall one would not be wrong. However, when it comes to world building, even with realistic fiction, actual geographical location is only one factor. Besides small towns, my books have also taken place inside minivans (aka: Blaze's Subatomic Sweatmobile of Doom) on reality show television sets (with Prom Queens battling it out for a grand prize tiara), on mountain tops (where Dyna chased her lust for Adrenaline), and everywhere from hidden cabins to carnivals to the world of street art with Rory, (as she wielded cans of spray paint like weapons) Each of those worlds required plenty of research, including everything from learning comic book jargon to watching hours upon hours of reality television, to studying graffiti artist techniques and all culminating in a family rock-climbing expedition which instigated a fresh fear of heights in my poor sweet daughter (my son LOVED it of course). And now PRETTY IN PUNXSUTAWNEY brings me back to my small Pennsylvania town roots as Andie gets caught in a Groundhog Day loop, reliving her first day at Punxsutawney High over and over. And as we all know, HIGH SCHOOL is a never-ending world all its own. Hope you'll join her there in January 2019! And just to entice you, here's the ah-mazing cover with an iconic locker shot and that small Pennsylvania town right there in the title:

Friday, May 18, 2018

Did your toy cars have personalities? (Alissa Grosso)

In some ways my childhood was the sort that every kid dreams about, well, in one very specific way. My father worked for a toy company. Through about first grade or so, save for a brief time period when he worked for Goody (forever known in our family as the Christmas of the barrettes) my father worked for Lesney Products which manufactured Matchbox Cars, Ginny Dolls and a few other smaller lines that never really took off.

What this meant is that I had a lot of Matchbox Cars growing up as well as pretty much every Matchbox Car accessory that there ever was: the car wash, the parking garage, the Sounds of Service auto repair facility, a variety of racetracks and something called Play Track.

Play Track consisted a bunch of different pieces that could be connected and arranged in a variety of ways, and thanks to my dad's job, I had enough pieces to make some pretty elaborate setups.

One thing that I struggle with nowadays, is how gendered toys have become. Growing up in the late 70s and early 80s I do not remember the gender division that exists in the toy aisles of stores today. Maybe part of it was that there wasn't much in the way of girl colors and boy colors back then. Pretty much everything was primary colors in those days, but there didn't seem to be much of a stigma about girls playing with cars, and I definitely knew plenty of boys who had Cabbage Patch Kids. I'm not even going to get into My Little Ponies which first appeared around this time and whose cross-gender appeal is so legendary that their male fandom even has their own nickname because this is a post about one little girl who spent hours playing with her toy cars.

Okay, but what does this have to do with worldbuiling you ask? In a very literal sense I would regularly build worlds for my toy cars by setting up the massive amount of Play Track pieces we had to form townscapes that would likely horrify most traffic engineers.

Then I would people these towns with cars. Even as a young child I understood that cars were inanimate machines driven by human beings, but other than me, the master creator, no humans ever figured into my car play because in this world the cars were the people.

I found some Matchbox cars while roaming through a Toys R Us store recently.

My cars all had personalities. Some were mean. Some were nice. Some were old and cranky. Some were young show-offs. I know I said before that toys in this era did not seem gendered in general, but on a more specific level all my cars had genders. Because, of course they did. This was decades before the Cars movies, and yes I do feel a slight pang of regret when I realize I should have written that movie and become fabulously wealthy.

But what that movie franchise proves to me, is that I couldn't possibly be the only one whose toy cars had personalities. I suspect there were quite a few of us out there, and I suspect that more than one of us went on to become a writer or to enter some other creative profession. Because sitting down and writing a book is a lot like getting out that big Play Track box.

When you sit down to write a new book, you are creating your world. It might not be as easy as snapping together plastic pieces, but it can be just as fun to plot out a story and create the realistic or fantastic universe it takes place in. Then the playing really begins when you add the characters whether they are human, beast or vehicle--seeing how they interact with this world you've created for them and with the other characters around them can provide for endless fun.

It's been a while since I've played with cars though I still have my Matchbox Cars collection somewhere in my attic. These days I've moved on to creating worlds out of words, and I am happy to report that it's just as fun. So, my advice to you is to take joy in playing with your words and creating the worlds of your books. It really is a lot of fun.

Alissa Grosso's word-play has led to the creation of the the novels Unnamed Roads, Shallow Pond, Ferocity Summer and Popular. Find out more about her books and how you can get a free one at

Sunday, May 13, 2018

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words (Jodi Moore)

This month, we’re talking about world building. Many don’t realize this, but in picture books, illustrators don’t just draw pictures to “go along with” the words. Rather, they tell the other half of the story. Yes, you read that right: 50%!

Of course, while my illustrators have told me that my words have inspired their “vision”, I’d venture to say that they’ve taken my original idea to heights I’d never even imagined and have placed the story and characters in the most magnificent settings!

I suppose that’s why they say that a picture is worth a thousand words. But what happens when one is writing a novel and hasn’t the luxury of pictures? Then we must become artists with our word choices. Think about your favorite novels for a moment. Doesn’t the author paint those pictures in your head, where the story rolls out like an award-winning movie?

First of all, when writing a story, one must decide the “setting” (or world.) Most people realize setting is a place, but what they don’t often think about is that it’s also about time. Does your story happen in modern day, historical or futuristic times? What about seasons? Is your scene taking place in the morning or at midnight?

Remember that we want to invite our readers into this world, so we have to ensure they’re on firm footing. If it’s a contemporary work, we are dealing with rules most are familiar with. But if we’re describing something different, whether it be outer space, inner space, or an entire new dimension, it’s important to provide not only the physical entity and time period, but the “rules of the house” as well.

The thing about world building is that it doesn’t have to be real, but it does have to be believable.

Once this is determined, one can start adding color, texture and depth to the palette. It’s all about detail and layering.

Have you heard the saying, “Show, don’t tell”? We can write (tell) that a character is scared, but if we show him/her that our character’s hands are shaking and he’s holding his breath, our readers begin to feel the fear as well. The same idea may be applied to world building.

Ultimately, we must be artists with our words. There’s a quote I love that sums it up perfectly:

For example, instead of telling readers, “It was windy.”

We can say:

“The scent of lilacs ticked his nose as the wind whispered secrets into his ears.”

It’s the difference between plain “blue” water...

and “an ocean of shimmering turquoise and aquamarine.”

Where would you rather swim? What world would you rather immerse yourself in?

Words matter.

Friday, May 11, 2018

World Building in Historical Fiction - Maryanne Fantalis

This month, we're talking about world building, which is just another way of asking, how do we writers make the reader feel immersed in the world of the story?

As a writer of historical fiction, this is a particularly important question.

Not only do you have to introduce your reader to the characters, the stakes, the plot -- in short, all of the things you always have to do as an author -- you have to bring the reader into a world that they may have no familiarity with at all. Zero. None.

Everything from clothing to food to transportation to going to the bathroom is probably different in your historical world.

Here's an example.

This morning, when I got ready to go out, I took a shower. I put on a bra and underwear, socks, jeans, a tee shirt, and sneakers.

You understood every one of those words, right? I didn't have to explain any of that. Our common experience in the modern world gives us a shorthand.

Now let's think about the world of late medieval England in which I set my stories. When my character wakes up in the morning, what would she do to get ready for the day?

You have no idea, do you?

I mean, when she woke up, what was her bed even like? Did you ever think about that?

I have to explain it to you, but in such a way that doesn't bore you to death, that doesn't sound like I'm just showing off how much freaking research I had to do to write this freaking book, and also in a way that doesn't sound strange and stilted from my character's perspective.

Because, honestly, what if I had written this above?

This morning, when I got ready to go out, I stepped into the large tile- and glass-enclosed box in the bathing cubicle attached to my bedchamber and turned the knobs on the wall. A rapid gush of water descended from the round spray nozzle high on the wall, gradually becoming warm to the touch. Relishing the spray dancing on my skin, I lathered myself with a palm-sized bar of a scented fat-and-lye mixture, quickly washing away the sweat and dirt of the previous day and night, as was customary in my culture.

Weird, right? Who describes their daily hygiene like this? I'll bet you've read sci-fi that sounded like that and you skimmed over it. Because -- ewwww.

So when you're talking about an unfamiliar place and time, you have to balance the weird with the necessary.

For example, when Kathryn, the main character in FINDING KATE, went outside of the house, she put on a pair of wooden overshoes called pattens to protect her delicate indoor shoes, made of silk or kidskin. She had to mention that. It's part of her world (as is the fact that her streets are mostly rutted dirt, and only paved in the rich part of town, which is literally half a street).

These beautiful pattens were hand-made by an SCA member named Lady Ursula von Memmingen.
You can see the research and design here:

So, although in a modern context, I could say I put on my sneakers but I didn't have to describe them to you, my main character couldn't quite do that. I had to describe her footwear, but subtly.

I did it by giving out little hints, not all at once.

In an early description, another character gives her a once-over, not kindly, and she feels his creepy gaze crawl "from the modest lace veil over my hair to the wooden pattens covering my silk slippers." She is dressed as an entirely respectable young lady going to church, but the things he's saying about her are very much at odds with the way she looks and acts -- very unfair to poor Kathryn! Anyway, the point is, there are the pattens, slipped on over her indoor silk slippers. So you can tell, very early in the book, that she's rich enough to wear silk, and that when she goes out of the house, she's not letting that silk touch the ground. 

Every time she leaves the house, she makes a point of slipping into those outdoor shoes, so the reader understands that this is habit for her. It's how she lives.

The hardest part of worldbuilding, for me, as a historical author, is not so much finding the answers. The research is the fun part (#procrastinating). It's finding ways to bring readers into the world without making it mind-numbingly boring for them. There's nothing worse than a novel that grinds to a halt so that the author can info-dump all the cool things they learned about the historical period. You know what I'm talking about. Two straight pages of a feast, amiright?

What are your favorite ways to work historical details into your writing? What struggles do you have? How do you keep the facts from weighing down the story?

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Research & World Building by Sydney Salter

Research is my absolute favorite part of writing - I actually set a Stop Researching deadline when I start a new manuscript, otherwise I'd keep diving into learning more and more. I don't call my research world building, but that's what I'm figuring out: who is this story about and where does this story take place?

I've built worlds in the future, past, and present, and each provides unique challenges surrounding accuracy, inventiveness, and believability.

But the thing that's stuck me recently is how all of us born before 1995 need to learn about modern teens - things have dramatically changed with the invention of the smart phone. We can no longer solely rely on our own experiences to craft our characters.

I highly recommend these three books about how technology has altered the way teenagers think and interact with each other and the world.

Monday, May 7, 2018

It's More Than A Place: Creating Settings (and Building Worlds) That Matter (Joy Preble)

We're talking about world building this month and so it's a good time to talk about setting, which is one of my favorite craft bits to teach, especially to newbie writers. As the title of the post state, setting is more than place. Setting is the when and where, but it's also the social norms and mores, the psychology of a place, the exact historical moment, the language, the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, touches. It's the climate, the geography and pretty much everything else. Basically, setting provides the social, intellectual and emotional context for your story. It both affects the characters and is a reflection upon them.

My SWEET DEAD LIFE series is set in Texas, specifically in the northern suburbs of Houston. If you have never been this is a world of enormous high school football stadiums mega churches, Olive Garden and other chain restaurants, strip malls and an endless landscape of suburban sameness , matching trash cans and mall culture, and an often aggressive artificial nature, such as suburbs with  town centers designed to look like they've been there for decades when actually they were built last year. 
(No offense to the suburbs. I live in one. But I'm also conscious of the weirdness of the whole thing)

Setting SDL in this specific place meant that I could use the setting in interesting and hopefully clever ways in this book about a very unlikely guardian angel, a global mystery, and a 14 year old feisty girl narrator who wants her life to calm the heck the down but isn’t likely to get that any time soon.

Setting SDL here meant I could juxtapose a world that often seems to believe it has a clear expectation about good and evil about life and death and the afterlife—this world of those mega churches and 4thof July parades where the local Democratic party frequently gets booed by families in camp chairs on the side of the road, of elaborate Christmas decorations and prayers before football games and letters to the editor in the local papers that rail against godless public schools with a real life angel who still likes to smoke a bit too much weed, lives with his sister, and mentally unstable mother in a run down tract home and possibly is performing miracles right before their eyes even though he is in their estimation, the last person they’d expect to do so. It allows me to explore my fascination with those who are chronically underestimated by placing them against this specific setting and through the specific prism of narrator Jenna Samuels, who is a product of her world at the same time as she wants desperately to leave it.

For example, just before their crappy Prius crashes – an accident brought on by Casey rushing ailing Jenna to the hospital in a car already ruined by Casey’s stoner pal Dave, and one that will result not in the death of dying Jenna but of her older brother Casey—Jenna observes: “Casey says we made it to our exit. Apparently we were racing along the feeder road to the hospital about a mile down. (Just to paint the full picture: we passed Woodhaven Cemetery, Houston North Rehab, and a strip center that housed a spinal surgery facility with a prosthesis clinic attached, a Vietnamese noodle house, Café Monterrey Mexican restaurant, and Stacy Carrigan Legal. In the Texas suburbs we like to cover all bases. If the ER or the rehab couldn’t fix you, at least they didn’t have to cart you far. After that, your loved ones could get a bite to eat and chat about who they could sue.)”

And since the novel is set in December, there is also this, with their neighbors the Gilroys once Jenna realizes that Casey actually died in the accident and has come back as her guardian angel, a task he knows shockingly little about, an opportunity to juxtapose a real angel against the Gilroy’s holiday décor, as seen through Jenna’s jaded eyes:

“The Gilroys were hanging up their Christmas lights when we locked up the house and climbed into the Merc. Mr. Gilroy, dressed in Dickies overalls and a tan Henley shirt, was perched on a ladder, screwing in bulbs. I saw that they hadd already decorated their yard with a manger scene and two lit-up full-sized angels. Maybe once they got them plugged in, Casey could go stand in the middle.
         Mrs. Gilroy hot-footed it across the strip of grass between our houses, a tangled extension cord clutched in her hands. ‘That looks like Nell Pittman’s car,’ she observed. She wore black velour pants and a button-down red Christmas sweater with Santa heads all over it. A white pom-pom sat at the top of each Santa hat.”

So Jenna, with a real angel at her side, observes this world where she lives, a world where ugly Christmas sweaters are NOT worn ironically.

Thus again, it’s not just about being accurate and descriptive. It’s about seeing the world through the character’s POV, through how this particular girl sees Houston and her life.

Likewise, in my YA contemporary FINDING PARIS, the aggressively artificial Vegas setting allows me to hint at the terrible things that are hiding under Leo Hollings’ life by showing rather than just telling. In this spare, contemporary novel, every bit of setting becomes crucial and admittedly requires readers to move past the stereotypical vision of Vegas as glittery fun.

So Leo tells us, “East of the Strip, a group of girls in short, brightly colored dresses wrapping their skinny bodies like bandages pose in front of the Hard Rock Hotel was we cross Paradise, a naked blow-up man doll hoisted over their heads.”

There’s a lot going on in that sentence if you choose to see it, including a reference to east of Paradise.

Not long after, there’s this:
“Elvis is guarding the Heartbreak Hotel Diner as we chug up. He’s the older, chunkier, gold lame Elvis—all those fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches and probably the drugs having taken their toll. If you’re going to build a twenty-four-hour diner three miles off the Vega Strip, in between a Rite Aid Pharmacy and a massage parlor, you’d think you would go for a young Elvis.”

Leo’s observations about the seedier side of Vegas, about the dreams not quite come true, give us –hopefully- some clues and insights into her and the secrets she is holding and the hopes and dreams that she feels she may never get. The way she sees the world serves as a prism to the way she sees herself.

World building therefore means I better be very clear on where my characters exist, how they fit in this setting, and what my writerly intentions are for both!

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Location, Location, Location (Mary Strand)

This month’s theme is all about YA worldbuilding.

When people talk about worldbuilding in fiction, I usually think fantasy or science fiction or maybe a different time period, but, really, it applies to all fiction.

So far, my novels have all been set in Minnesota (where I live) or on the St. Croix River, which divides Minnesota and Wisconsin (where my in-laws have a summer house).  Places I know.  Streets I know.  In the case of two of my novels, a summer house I know quite well.

So where’s the worldbuilding?

My Bennet Sisters YA series is set in Woodbury, Minnesota, because I wanted a city in Minnesota that sounds like Jane Austen.  Highbury is Emma and not Pride and Prejudice, but close enough.  I’m not often in Woodbury, but it’s right off Highway 94, which I’ve driven a million times between Minneapolis and Wisconsin, it’s close to my in-laws’ summer house, and the Valley Creek Mall has a couple of good bookstores.  Oh, and there’s a Five Guys nearby.  (Research trip!)  Thanks to my books, Valley Creek Mall also now has an imaginary pizza joint: Russo’s.  Why?  Whenever Bad Stuff (loosely defined) happens in my books, I make up a place rather than annoy a real place.  That’s probably why hospitals in fiction tend to be invented by the author.

Even in my fictional worlds, though, I try to keep it as real as possible.  Readers (including me) want to feel like they’ve been wherever the characters are going.  That’s why my five teenage girls in the Bennet Sisters novels roam the Mall of America, not some huge fictional mall that happens to be in Bloomington, Minnesota.  They hang out at the DQ in Valley Creek Mall.  Jane takes a trip to New York City and goes shopping at Bloomingdale’s.  When Cat goes for a joyride to Wisconsin Dells, the reader is right there as she makes a detour at Menards in Hudson, Wisconsin, and drives past Eau Claire and Black River Falls on her way to the Dells.

But sometimes I can’t keep it real.

If a YA book is set in a high school, and bad things happen in that high school, I have to make it up.  My most recent YA manuscript dealt with issues like shaming and bullying.  I definitely had to invent the school where that takes place.  When I had that school play another Minneapolis high school in football, though, I named an actual school.  The closer I stay to reality, the better.

Sometimes it’s more difficult.  I’m currently working on a YA series about a high school for psychics.  I had to invent a high school (of course), but I placed it close to Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis, both for a readers’ reference point and because I love Minnehaha Falls.  On occasion, the characters go on unsanctioned adventures, ending up at real places like Fort Snelling or Lake Calhoun or Sea Salt, the restaurant at Minnehaha Falls.  But mostly they’re in class, and they’re divided by groups á la Harry Potter, where their personality fits the personality of the group.  The worldbuilding was intense as I began writing the first book in the series.  I had to figure out the groups and individual characters, both students and teachers, in a world where everyone is psychic and has different psychic skills, insecurities, and quirks.  It’s not so much that I’m building a world; it’s more that I’m building the characters inside that world.

In fact, in all of my books, that’s the most important part of worldbuilding: figuring out the characters.  So, really, the title of this blog should’ve instead been Character, Character, Character.

Too late now!

Mary Strand is the author of Pride, Prejudice, and Push-Up Bras and three other novels in the Bennet Sisters YA series. You can find out more about her at

Saturday, May 5, 2018

A Brief Primer to World Building

By Fae Rowen

Bear with me as I share a short set-up I wrote earlier this week:

I looked out my window this morning, as I always do while drinking my usual protein shake.
In the heavier than usual wind, the prayer flags flapped loudly. 
Through the narrow gaps of brightly-colored material I see a profusion of blooming tropical flowers. 
Behind them, a mermaid sits on her rock. Surrounded by water. Unconcerned by the wind. Blowing through her conch shell. 

Beyond her, an angel stands, arms wide, watching the tiny decedents of millenia-dead dinosaurs perform their morning sun salutations, ignoring the war machines whirring overhead.

Here are the other pictures, from outside my kitchen window, that I took before writing that introduction. The important thing to remember is that I shared the setting from my own POV which, being a science fiction writer, can be rather skewed at times. Just ask my friends.

Yes, I write speculative fiction, also known as science fiction. My friends who write in other genres used to tell me, "I could never write science fiction. You have to do all that world building." Guess what? All writers have to world build for their stories. Even writers of contemporary fiction.

Think about it for a moment. If you're writing contemporary YA romance, you probably set some scenes in school and in at least one of your character's homes. You have to world build to convey the sense of those settings and what's important to your characters in the settings. 

It's important to do your world building through your characters' POVs, otherwise it could seem like a giant info dump. And beware of "author intrusion." That's when you share too much information because, as an author, you have an agenda about what you want the reader to know. Unfortunately, your characters don't share your agenda, and your readers will see through your attempt to force feed them every time. If you know about deep POV, this is the perfect place to use the technique.

Here are the basics of what authors need to give develop when they're world building:

  1. Physical settings
  2. Social rules
  3. Politics
  4. Religion/Belief system
No author shares everything they know about the world—whether it's historical, contemporary, or future—anymore than a writer would share every bit of research they've done for a book. Choose the details that are necessary to tease out the most important of your character's traits. Or the setting. Or the social fabric. Or anything else that's a critical part of the set-up of your story. 

And don't forget that you don't just world build in the first three chapters. Further into your story, you'll be able to add new details that make sense and are necessary to either the plot, character, or romance arcs. Well done, these "reveals" (sometimes known as "Easter eggs") can surprise and satisfy the reader in ways that make them your reader for life.

Since it's the beginning of the month, I don't want to overwhelm you with an info dump and steal everyone else's thunder. Here are a couple of links to other articles I've written about world building when you're ready to delve into the subject more:

World Building Techniques, with excerpts from my winter release, Keeping Athena, this post contains two links to specific articles about World Building techniques.

Do you have questions for Fae about a world building issue you're dealing with in your WIP? Want to share one of your world building tips? That's what the comments are for.


Fae Rowen discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak. Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes  that she can live anywhere but the present. As a mathematician, she knows life’s a lot more fun when you get to define your world and its rules.
Punished, oh-no, that’s published as a co-author of a math textbook, she yearns to hear personal stories about finding love from those who read her books, rather than the horrors of calculus lessons gone wrong.  She is grateful for good friends who remind her to do the practical things in life like grocery shop, show up at the airport for a flight and pay bills.
A “hard” scientist who avoided writing classes like the plague, she now shares her brain with characters who demand that their stories be told.  Amazing, gifted critique partners keep her on the straight and narrow. Feedback from readers keeps her fingers on the keyboard.
P.R.I.S.M., a young adult science fiction romance story of survival, betrayal, resolve, deceit, and love.
When she’s not hanging out at Writers in the Storm, you can visit Fae at  or

Thursday, May 3, 2018

A Whole New World - by Janet Raye Stevens

"One of my challenges [as a writer] is to make sure that I'm giving the reader details that the character cares abut rather than details that I care about. I'd say that's the key to world-building."    -Jess Anderson 
Well, that’s the end of my post this month—Jess Anderson said it all for me and in far fewer words than I would use.
See you in June!
Ha, okay, guess I’ll stick around a bit longer to elaborate on this month’s theme: world-building. Every author world-builds in their own way, as you will discover reading what each of us posts on YAOTL this month. And there is no right way, as long as the author creates a world readers connect to, care about, and believe in.
When I start a project, I begin with an idea, a setting, an inciting incident (and sometimes a wow finish), and of course, the characters. Vague, I know. Even vaguer when I tell you I’m a committed “pantser,” with no idea where I’m going to end up when I sit down to write. This confession probably just gave every plotter reading this the vapors, but that’s the way I roll.  
So, here I am, sitting at my computer (a big, ol’ old fashioned desktop, mind you!), building my world. The setting comes to life as my characters take shape and the plot unfolds from my fingertips. This is where pantsing gets tricky, because—research.
Whether you’re writing an action-adventure set in a sci-fi universe or a contemporary story about high school friends falling in love, you’ve got to know stuff about where you are. People, places, things, slang, customs, laws, mores, clothing, no clothing, money, castes, foods and on and on need to be looked into.
Whether you start off with your research at the beginning of a project, like a plotter, or, if you’re a pantser like me and end up with piles of files, a slew of sticky notes, and twenty seven 8x10 color glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each when you’ve completed your manuscript, that research is key to finding those details that will, hopefully, make the reader care about your world and characters.
Something's fishy here!
Our friend Google is a great starting point for any kind of world you’re creating, even for a Sci-Fi. Google is the quickest and easiest way to dig up strange plants and flowers, names for moons and planets, odd and unusual animals or fish (have you seen the amazing creatures that swim in our oceans?). It’s also great for finding names and thingamabobs other authors have used in their works, so you can avoid repetition and ensure your six-legged camel-like creature with the snaggle tooth is unique.
Museums and libraries are great places to find details for your world. For example, museum paintings and other artwork can give you a glimpse into Renaissance fashion and customs, libraries will give it context with scholarly works you can access for free. Local libraries are a treasure trove of town reports, street directories, and newspaper clippings that may seem mundane, but provide insight into daily life of another era. Plus, libraries (and local history museums) sometimes have odd and wonderful artifacts you can see up close and personal.  
Who knew you could find a wreath of human hair at the library?
And don’t forget primary sources. My stepfather was a collector of all things important and trivial, ranging from the hoops his great-grandmother wore under her skirts in the 1870s to every issue of Mac World Magazine ever printed. He also kept a bunch of newspapers from the 1940s, his WWII Signal Corps uniforms, and Chinese money from when he was posted there. I write mystery set in WWII, so you can imagine how valuable it is to be able to see and touch these materials.

May 1945, and jobs for women were plentiful
Which brings me to another and most valuable primary source—people. If your protagonist is a kid whose dad/mom is a cop, talk to a cop, see how he/she moves and speaks and how they relate to their own kids.
I talked to my stepfather a lot about his war experiences, and will never forget his story of being put up in a hotel in Miami during basic training and how, each morning, a truck would back up to the patio door and fresh oranges would spill off. He could still remember the smell. I haven’t used it yet in a story, but will someday.  
Well, I’ve sort of run on, so I’ll close with this final bit of world-building advice:
"I'm not going to tell you how to start a bug-powered vehicle, I'm just going to put you inside one with somebody who knows how, and send you off on a ride." - Kameron Hurley
That means, use what you learn wisely, but sparingly. Don’t overwhelm your reader with facts and figures and dates and details, or they’ll check out. Give them the details they care about, that engages them, and makes them eager to strap in for that ride to a whole new world!