What do historical fiction, fantasy, and science fiction have in common? Whether it's ancient Rome, a land filled with gnomes and fairies, or a distant planet, the writer must create a believable world for readers.
A.R. Silverberry writes fantasy and has recently created and released a new world into the universe in his novel, The Stream. I asked A.R. to write a post about world building, and I hope you find the process as interesting as I do.
Every novel needs a world, a ground on which the action unfolds. When I started working on The Stream, I thought creating that ground, what authors call world building, would be a fairly simple process. I had a five-year-old boy, Wend. I had boats. I had a waterway. I knew he would face the hardships of nature, but it all seemed like it would flow like a fairy tale, so how much detail did I need? I found out quickly just how much!
First, I knew almost nothing about boats and sailing. My knowledge of surviving in nature was just as scant. And the trick to writing is that the world, whether it’s a mythic world, such as that of The Stream, or the real world, such as found in thrillers, romances, or historical novels, in fact, any novel, must feel real. You must feel certain it exists, somewhere. You want to live there. Or not. (Who would want to live in the world of Katniss Everdeen?) If it doesn’t feel real, the reader is thrown out of the story. Worse, the characters won’t feel real. No matter how convincingly they’re portrayed, if they’re prancing around on a set with painted sheets, the book will feel shallow, unsatisfying, and unbelievable. There’s a good chance the book might get thrown across the room or deleted from the e-reader faster than you can say Kindle.
Here’s a short list of some of the things I needed to learn and integrate into the novel: the flora and fauna of the riparian wilderness; the technology available to the primitive people occupying the stream; knife making, basketry; boatbuilding; the myths, legends, rituals, and beliefs of the culture; and the mainstays of their diet and how it was prepared. Plus, if I haven’t visited an actual location for a scene I’m writing, I try to find a photo reference. Fortunately, I was within walking distance of a beautiful stream, which I was able to study during every conceivable weather condition.
Having established the details of the world, the next order of business was to establish its laws; how it worked. Defenseless and alone, Wend needed a world that would test him and the others he encountered, a world that was both harsh and beautiful, that distilled and concentrated the existential dilemmas of life. I needed the reader to quickly learn and accept the laws of this world. There’s a rule I learned from novelist Elizabeth George: if you want the reader to get something, you have to repeat it at least nine times through out the novel. Once you’ve established how things work, you must be consistent. If you violate how the world works, you’ve killed the magic, that fragile glue that binds the story.
Here’s a brief bit of prose I wrote to establish the world of the stream. I love the prose, but I ended up not using it because I found others ways to convey what I wanted.
If Wend had stopped to think about it, he would have realized that his family, searching for fruit, nuts, and roots, never ventured far from either shore, that travelers never sailed upstream to tell tales of what lay ahead. Except for tacking and voyages of a few miles, his family never ventured upstream either. When he’d asked his father why, he was told, “It’s a law.” Wend must have looked blank because his father told him to jump as high as he could. Wend jumped, and after his feet landed on the ground his father said, “Now jump as high as the top of the mast.” Wend had laughed, but declared that no one could do that.
“Why not?” his father asked.
“We come down first,” Wend replied.
“It’s a law,” said his father. “And it’s a law that we go that way.”
His father pointed downstream.
If Wend had thought of these things, he would have understood that everyone was tethered to the stream and could only go in one direction. People stopped from time to time, working at abandoned foundries to smelt metal for anchors, chains, and knives, cutting trees to build or repair boats, living in villages, taking over deserted houses like creatures that move into another animal’s shell. They never stayed long, always returning to their boats, always going with the current, always traveling downstream.
A final note. From the above sample, you can see that the world I created isn’t just a fantasy world formed from random elements. The world is integrally bound up with the story’s theme, plot, and characters. Sauron and Gandalf can only exist in Middle Earth. The Red Queen and Madhatter can only exist in Wonderland. Wend could only exist in the world of the Stream.
Synopsis of The Stream:
What if your world was six miles wide and endlessly long?
After a devastating storm kills his parents, five-year-old Wend awakens to the strange world of the Stream. He discovers he can only travel downstream, and dangers lurk at every turn: deadly rapids, ruthless pirates, a mysterious pavilion that lures him into intoxicating fantasies, and rumor of a giant waterfall at the edge of the world. Defenseless, alone, with only courage and his will to survive, Wend begins his quest to become a man. Will tragic loss trap him in a shadow world, or will he enter the Stream, with all its passion and peril?
Part coming-of-age tale, part adventure, part spiritual journey, The Stream is a fable about life, impermanence, and the gifts found in each moment.
Purchase The Stream:
iTunes: Coming Soon!
Follow A. R. Silverberry:
A. R. Silverberry writes fiction for adults and children. His novel, WYNDANO’S CLOAK, won multiple awards, including the Benjamin Franklin Award gold medal for Juvenile/Young Adult Fiction. He lives in California, where the majestic coastline, trees, and mountains inspire his writing. THE STREAM is his second novel.