One more speculative fiction prompt to finish my monthly theme. What’s the story? Here’s mine.
The wyvern flapped its enormous wings, forcing the smaller draco into cartwheels. But the draco used its superior speed to fly behind the wyvern and shoot its hotter flame at the back of the wyvern’s head.
I grabbed the battle ax from the deck. What a homecoming.
The more I study the craft of writing, the more I understand that all writers engage in world-building. It’s obvious that speculative fiction writers build fantasy worlds, but anytime a writer tries to make real a world the reader is unfamiliar with, she is engaged in world-building, either making the unbelievable believable or the unfamiliar familiar.
Making the Unfamiliar Familiar
Outside of speculate fiction, most writers come under the heading above, even nonfiction ones. In The Guns of August, author Barbara W. Tuchman writes about the events of the summer of 1914 that led to the beginning of World War I.
One scene stands out in my mind is The Ride of the Kings. All of European royalty turned out for the funeral of Edward VII of England in 1910. Nine kings rode with Edward’s surviving brother in the funeral procession. It was one of the last gestures of old-fashioned pageantry before the European countries turned on in each other in war. Ms. Tuchman writes this scenes so vividly that I feel like I was a bystander at the procession. To me, that’s world-building.
As a mystery writer, I find many aspects of my story come under world- building. My short story, “A Rose from the Ashes”, and my work-in-progress, A Shadow on the Snowboth take place in a rural county in Ohio. For someone who grew up in a city outside of America, or even inside it, such a setting may seem as strange as a moonbase. It’s my job to describe the setting and the characters who live there in such ways to make them both relatable and unique. I want to find the common threads that all humans can relate to while also highlighting unique features of the place, such as the weather or history.
Another aspect of my stories is law enforcement. Several of my characters are deputies and one is a sheriff. I need to write so that those unfamiliar with this kind of work can live it with the characters. I’ve done a lot of research on such things as how long is shift, do rural cops ever work a shift without back up, and can deputies grow moustaches. I didn’t want to describe a character who is a deputy and give him the mannerism of smoothing his moustache if they aren’t allowed to wear one in Ohio. Little breaks from reality like that make my stories just a little less believable.
If you’re a writer, what kind of world-building do you engage in? If you’re a reader, what story has the most believable world-building?
My friend author/editor Michelle L. Levigne is back to give advice on writing speculative fiction. Michelle has written books in almost every genre but her favorites are science fiction and fantasy. She writes about the fandom method of worldbuilding as a way for budding speculative fiction writers to learn the rules of the genre. Take it away , Michelle!
There is nothing new under the sun — no matter what world you’re talking about.
Our Lord is the Creator, but face it, gang, no matter how much effort we put into makin our brain children appear to be totally new, unique, fresh … writers are RE-creators. We take what we see around us and reweave, slap some paint on, cut a few new holes, patch holes, add material, whatever. Bottom line: we’re recycling.
When it comes to the adventures of the starship Defender (shameless self-promotion of my book in print this month, FRIENDLY FIRE), I freely confess it’s all recycled material. To be specific: my worldbuilding is firmly based in fandom.
This is the AA part of the meeting:
Hi, My name is Michelle. And I am a recovering Trekker …
Many moons ago, I wanted to get my MA in filmmaking, focused on writing. (With a theater/English degree I could either continue my education or go work in a fast food restaurant until someone bought my Great American Science Fiction Novel.) I went to California to live with my aunt and apply to film school. I had a connection there with a fellow fan of the TV show The Phoenix. She invited me to her Star Trek club, the USS Defiance. One of the watershed moments of my life: More crazy people like me, who lived in their imaginations. They had stories in the monthly newsletter and a yearly fanzine. I hooked up with people who were constantly talking stories and it was glory.
Writing for fandom is an incredibly useful, strength-building and skin-thickening exercise. You’re playing in someone else’s playground, and other fans will NOT let you get away with breaking the rules. They will let you know when your characters are being Too Stupid To Live and when you’ve violated the laws of that particular universe.
The important point here is that the foundations, the boundaries, the research and worldbuilding had already been done. I could concentrate on the characters, the dialog, the plot — learning to simply put stories together, with the scenery, the costumes, the props already provided by someone else. Like learning theater in summer camp, rather than starting your own theater from the ground up.
Fandom provides the answers to questions writers need to learn to ask in their own, original stories: WHY can’t the characters act that way? HOW are they going to get from A to B? WHAT happens if they do C instead of D? And when you violate the understood, unspoken rules of that story world, other fans let you know. They explain, with varying levels of kindness, why what you want the characters to do, or to have happen, won’t work.
Get slapped with, “Nuh uh, that would never happen,” often enough, you learn to think and figure out the rules for yourself. You learn consistency. You learn to come up with logical reasons WHY a character would violate his behavior patterns, how rules CAN be violated. Finding the guidelines, the foundation, is trained into you. You know to ask the plot-crucial questions before you start writing and to have the props, the scenery, the costumes, the special effects ready and on the set, to be used when needed. To paraphrase Chekov (Anton, not Pavel), if you want a gun to fire in Act III, it had better be on the table in Act I.
Fandom writing is like theatrical rehearsals. Actors learn their lines, then block the action on the stage someone else built, then rehearse with props, costumes and makeup provided by someone else. When you switch from fandom writing to writing your own stories, you transform from actor or crew to director/producer/set designer — and you know what to do because you’ve been watching others do it and following their rules.
As Kirk said to Saavik, “We learn by doing.”
Captain Genys Arroyan has a problem with her shiny new command — the dregs of the universe are laughing.
While the Defender is in spacedock, getting upgrades, Genys has to deal with mind-hunters and farting fur balls, merchants-of-insanity and diplomatic intrigue. Her Chief of Talents is hiding from forced matrimony and her new crewmembers aren’t too happy to be transferred to the Nanny Ship.
Then she finds out that the insectoid Hivers have a taste for the brains of the children of her crew. Falling through a Chute to another galaxy might turn out to be a good thing, even if dangerous.
A rescue mission turns into a battle to save a race of miniature dragons from genocide. They might just be sentient — but more important, dracs could turn out to be the defensive weapon the Alliance needs against the Hiver threat. Genys and her crew could end up breaking dozens of regulations in the quest to save dracs and maybe the Human race. Just how much trouble could teleporting, fire-breathing creatures with the personalities of four-year-olds cause on board a military vessel?
The misfit luck of the AFV Defender might finally be running out.
Michelle has 40+ fan stories in various SF and fantasy universes. She has a bunch of useless degrees in theater, English, film/communication, and writing. Even worse, she has over 100 books and novellas with multiple small presses, in SF and fantasy, YA, suspense, women’s fiction, and romance. Her training includes the Institute for Children’s Literature; proofreading at an advertising agency; and working at a community newspaper. She is a tea snob and freelance edits for a living, but only enough to give her time to write. Her crimes against the literary world include co-owning Mt. Zion Ridge Press and Ye Olde Dragon Books. Be afraid … be very afraid.
After mysteries, speculative fiction is my favorite genre to read. Two of my favorite novels, regardless of genre, are speculative fiction, the fantasy Watership Downby Richard Adams and The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. Click on the titles to read my reviews.
I also love reading short stories. The anthology Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers contains four of my favorite speculative fiction short stories. If you love science fiction or fantasy, try to get your hands on a copy of the anthology or see if the short stories below are reprinted online.
The Tryouts by Barry B. Longyear
On the planet of Momus, reporting the news isn’t a right or a job. It’s an art, which people pay for like any other art. That makes it very difficult when an ambassador from the Ninth Federation needs to tell the people of Momus about an imminent invasion from the Tenth Federation. As a newsteller, an artist who performs the news, put it, this story has “great heroes and high comedy.”
This story is original and fun, especially for a writer. As the newsteller performs his news, his audience of three critiques it like an agent or editor. They remark on whether the opening has a good enough hook, if the hero is described well enough, or if he has sufficient motivation. It also has a great twist ending.
The Homesick Chicken by Edward D. Hoch
Edward D. Hoch was known for his mysteries, so it’s no surprise that this science fiction story is also a mystery. Barnabus Rex, a detective of scientific riddles, is called to a research farm to figure out why one of the farms genetically modified chickens pecked its way out of the farm, crossed a belt highway, and was found pecking in an empty field. Yes, it’s a futuristic version of why did the chicken cross the road with the added element of crime.
The Band from the Planet Zoom by Andrew Weiner
A rock band of three young men and a young women approach a British rock critic to be their manager. They claim to be from America. They cover songs from the 60’s in any style you can name. He becomes their manager, and the music business goes wild over these clever copyists. The manager learns they aren’t really from America but from a planet where the citizens loves this kind of music. When he falls for the young woman, he learns the Band from the Planet Zoom copies more than just hit songs.
The Hob by Judith Moffett
While on a vacation in Yorkshire, Jenny Shepherd meets Elphi, a member of an alien race who assumed the role of hobs in the countryside. Hobs are like fairies or brownies, who do good deeds, but if humans break certain rules, they will leave or turn against them.
Elphi explains how his people arrived on earth and how they’re dying off. He also tells Jenny she’ll forget this whole story in twenty-four hours. Elphi is right, but Jenny is always curious about the twenty-four hours she lost on her vacation and is always drawn to Yorkshire.
I love this story because I enjoy stories that try to explain the reality behind superstitions or legends. This story also has one of the best endings of any short story I’ve read.
What speculative fiction short stories do you recommend?
How about a science fiction prompt to kick off your week? What’s the story for this photo? I chose this one because it is clearly a science fiction setting with the spaceship, but there’s also a castle in the background. I like the contrast, and that ignited my imagination. Here’s my story:
The rust bucket hit the planet with all the grace an ancient space shuttle.
“If our mission is so important,” I flipped switches to cut the steam billowing from a burst tube, “why didn’t the Government give us a decent ship?”
Haney stared at me. “You’re trying to make sense of the Government?”
“Sorry,” I said through clenched teeth. “Don’t know what came over me.” I stared out the window, past the iron formations to a castle straight out of a fairy tale. “This is a wasted trip. Senator Allus quit and came to the backend of the galaxy to build that thing and live by himself. He’s not going to help the Government, no matter what the crisis is.”
Haney lowered his eyebrows. “Do you know there’s a crisis?”
“No. But why else would the Government send us to get somebody who’s made it pretty clear he wants nothing to do with anybody?”
“Good question.” His voice was quiet as he gazed at the spires rising against the purple clouds of methane.
With the warmer months here in the Buckeye State, my youngest, the Fishing Fanatic, begins watching the weather for chances to enjoy his favorite sport, pastime, and hobby. Funny how a parent can become interested in a subject just because her kids are. Not that I’ve taken up fishing. But I’ve gone out enough with the Fanatic to tell you about how to use fishing as writing inspiration.
Wouldn’t a book about a mom who has no interest in fishing and has one misadventure after another as she tries to support her kid and his love of the sport be hysterical?
I could write about the mom diving into murky waters to rescue a runaway rod, wading a river to unhook a snag, wrestling catfish, and crossing to a far shore through freezing water in October.
Now that you know what my life has been like for the past two years, take what inspiration you can from it. When I mix nature, animals, and weather into a story, I have the freedom to create all sorts of funny disasters.
The last paragraph above can also apply to adding suspense and tension to a story. The unpredictable quality of nature provides many different kinds of problems for my characters to face.
Fishing as writing inspiration for suspense has another great advantage. It gives my characters an excuse to break out of their normal routines as they head out on a fishing trip. Then I can dump them into unfamiliar settings peopled with hostile characters.
I love film noir, a style of movie making that flourished in Hollywood from 1940-1960. Several movies land their characters in trouble because they are going on a fishing trip. In The Hitch-Hiker, two men are taken hostage by a homicidal maniac. In 5 Steps to Danger, the main character’s car breaks down, and he accepts a ride from a woman with a complicated past and bad guys on her trail. In Act of Violence, a WWII veteran suspects his less-than-heroic act in a prisoner of war camp is catching up with him when he goes on a fishing trip and spots a man in a boat who isn’t dressed for fishing.
Another great thing about using the fishing trip is that I don’t have to know much about fishing. All the trouble can occur on the way to the fishing destination before my characters ever make one cast. Although it would be fun to include the fishing aspect somehow. Such as a criminal, who is on the FBI’s most wanted list, purses two fishing buddies, who stumbled across his hideout in the mountains. With the criminal after them, the buddies have only the contents of their tackle boxes to use as some kind of defense.
Family or Friendship
The bond that can occur during fishing is a wonderful way to explore family relationships or friendships of characters.
A grandfather, who loves fishing, can’t interest any of his grandchildren until the most unlikely one falls in love with it. Two very disparate characters chance upon each other at a secluded fishing spot and begin a friendship.