There’s nothing to it… So said Willy Wonka. And I believed him when I saw the movie as a child. It’s been one of my mantras for quite a long time.
I’m sure you all heard the sonic boom caused by my squeal when The Stolen Songbird went live on Amazon, and then again when the paperbacks arrived and I held it in my hand for the first time (I knew it was real because it had a barcode! Whoot! Whoot!)
I changed my world this week by downloading my own book from Amazon to my own kindle. I read it for the first time as a reader, not a creator, not an author or an editor. I’m currently on Chapter Eleven and I actually enjoy it. It doesn’t suck (well, to me at least). I wasn’t sure if that would happen. I hate seeing myself on video (that really does suck). I’m okay acting or singing or giving a presentation, but I can’t watch myself afterward…it really does creep me out. I was afraid that would happen with the book. But it didn’t. Dreams really do come true, and all those glorious and wonderful writing mentors out there that said ‘write what you want to read’ were 100% spot on.
Of course now that Book One is out, it’s time to get off the editing horse and back in the writing saddle for Book Two (The Gordian Gauntlet). As such, world building has been much on my mind of late, and I’d like to share an article on world building that I wrote for the lovely Penelope Ann Bartotto, Head Librarian at the Library at the End of the Universe. It’s an awesome place to visit. Here’s the link if you’d like to check it out: http://www.libraryattheendofuniverse.com/
“I hold the world as but the world…a stage where every man must play a part.”
– William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
World building is the most enjoyable part of the writing craft for me. I live in my worlds. I eat, sleep, and breathe in them. I walk down the lanes and avenues greeting passers-by in a myriad of languages, smelling the roses, and petting the dust lions. I listen to the clackety-clack of armored steam trains and the roar of dragons. I watch salamanders popping corn and melting the butter to drip over it in little glass street-carts, and stare at dirigibles flying overhead to dock at the Greenwich Mooring Yards. I’ve walked the markets of Nairobi Underhill and seen the marvelous round stone door with its fantastical mosaics guarding St. James Court. The world is a stage for my characters, and I want that stage to be 3D High Definition eighty bazillion pixels to the square centimeter with smell-o-vision for the sizzling bacon.
But worlds don’t come pre-packaged on the shelf at Write-KEA or at Best Scry. So what makes a steampunk world so much fun to create and write in, and how do you create one? Arguably the answer to the first part of the question is variety. Although there is a loose aesthetic centered on the genre, steampunk defies pigeon-holes.
Oh, there are certainly people out there who will tell you that steampunk worlds must be this, or steampunk worlds must be that, and how dare you put this whatsit or that magical item in a steampunk novel. But I kindly remind those esteemed sages to remember that steampunk writers are not Victorian reenactors, and then, with a smile and a nod, misquote the best line from the movie Silverado “Steampunk is what you make of it, Friend. If it doesn’t fit, make alterations.”
To be fair, steampunk worlds do have a few common elements, steam being one of them. Without steam, you’re left with punk, which loses some of the oomph that makes steampunk so enjoyable. The worlds of steampunk differ from writer to writer, but are generally Victorian in nature, and by that I don’t necessarily mean time or place. Some of the more interesting steampunk works out there are not set in Victorian England. No, by Victorian, I mean proper manners and the fact that the world you create is beautiful as well as functional. A good steampunk doomsday device will have the heroine in raptures over its exquisite brass fittings right before it counts down to zero and explodes to shards of glittering death.
This freedom is double edged when world building. Can you have magic in a steampunk world? Absolutely! Can your dragons wear top hats and tails? Hell yes…assuming of course your haberdashers are up to doing the fittings. Can you glue some gears on it and call it steampunk? Yes you can (despite what the song says), as long as you’re aware that you’ll need to do a bit of tap dancing to explain yourself.
Because world building, steampunk or otherwise, comes down to believability. My characters have to walk around on this stage I’ve built for them. They have to be the focus of my story and interact with what I’ve created. And as a writer, I have to follow my own world’s rules or my reader will blink, say “Huh?”, and be thrown violently out of the narrative. I can’t say that hydrogen and helium aren’t available in my world and then have dirigibles bombing around without giving them some other means to fly. I can’t say there are no taxes without explaining how the powers that be support an army or build roads.
Oh yes, world building isn’t just geography and biology, it’s also politics, and economics and interaction between nations, and how that affects the characters. I remember my first attempt at a longer story where my heroine conquered the world, and I realized that the conquering wasn’t the end of the story. All of a sudden I had to come up with funding and budgets and a public works system. Otherwise, the second story, which took place a few hundred years down the line in the same country would make no sense at all. What kind of world did my heroine leave as a legacy, and how did that affect the characters in the new story?
Note that doesn’t mean all of the creativity I’ve just put blood, sweat and tears into will ever see the light of the day in the novel. My drama teacher in college said one thing that stuck with me more as a writer than anything else. He told us that, if there were a desk on the stage of the character’s bedroom, we would need to know what was in the back of the bottom drawer of that desk, regardless of whether the character ever opened it in the scene. That knowledge would be essential to make our portrayal of that character believable.
The same is true of world building. My character may never walk down Tinker’s Alley during this story to stop at the little shop that sells clockwork cicadas, but she knows it’s there. She may even be thinking of buying one for her brother for Christmas. As several of the “How To Write a Great Whatever It Is You Want To Write” books have said, I take all that detail and save it up (and document it so that six months from now I remember what I came up with). I can then either create an appendix like Tolkien, or, who knows, maybe in the next book, she will wander down Tinker’s Alley, and that scene will move the plot along for a different narrative.
So stoke the fires and let loose the steam. Away the mooring lines and cast off for the skies above. Take out the hammer and nails and wrenches and arc welders and build a stage unlike any other for your characters to play on. I’ll join you for a nice hot cuppa as soon as I’ve finished polishing my clockwork army.