Honestly, I took one look at this and thought Uh-Oh. Kate Karyus Quinn, who is the blogger before me, had the same reaction I did, but that's okay, because some questions are going to be harder for some people. And we can learn things from that, too.
Fortunately for my dilemma, since I'm up now, HL Dyer, who started this chain, and Michelle McLean, who followed her, had really interesting answers that got the little cogs in my brain moving. I'm looking forward to Sandra's answer (she's the blogger after me this time), and all the posts of all my other blog chain buddies (see list to your left)! Definitely be sure not to miss Mary Lindsey's -- she talks about the importance of authenticity with examples that will make your mouth drop open!
What makes my answer different from everyone's so far is that I write science fiction and fantasy. So rather than examining the past for factual details, I have to make up alternate worlds. And the most important thing I do when I build a world for my stories is figure out the "rules," or perhaps more accurately, the laws.
By laws, I mean the factual kind that recur in nature. You can jump upwards as many times as you want to, but as long as you’re dealing with a g of gravity, you will always come back down. You can do your darndest to stop the ocean tides, but as long as the earth keeps spinning and the moon keeps pulling, there will be tides.
The same thing has to happen with magic. There must be laws to any magical universe, and to create them, a writer must ask herself things like
- Who can use magic and who can’t? Only people who are trained? Only people who have certain genes? Only people of a certain gender or race or culture? Why only those people? Must the power be awakened, or is it there from birth?
- What is magic? Where does it come from? Is it a force of nature, neither good nor evil, or is it a spiritual or eschatological kind of power only angels or demons can grant?
- How is magic used? Must the user cast spells, or is magic more of a generalized energy? Must he rely on herbs, or blood, or eye of newt, or are spell components obsolete in your world? Are sigils, runes, or incantations used?
- What price must be paid? If you fight gravity by jumping, eventually you’re going to wear yourself out. That’s the price. So what happens when one uses magic? And are the consequences the same for any kind of magic, or do they vary with the kind of spell?
- What are the limits on magic? If your character can do anything and everything, there’s no tension in the story, so what can’t she do with magic?
- Are there different types of magicians with specialized powers -- like necromancers and alchemists and prophets -- or are they all the same?
I have done a lot of research on different kinds of technology over the years. I understand a variety of different theories on wormholes, time travel, and multiverses. I’ve researched EMPs (electromagnetic pulses), Coriolis forces, and how rail guns and particle beam cannons might function. I have files on my computer explaining the difference between fission and fusion bombs, the radius of damage done by different kiloton blasts, and the effects of fallout. (And of course these types of things tend to pop out of my mouth from time to time, causing people to look strangely at me.)
One of the hardest things for me is not using the same rules in every magical universe or scifi universe. When you have a logical, well-defined set of rules that you abide by carefully, it can be hard to think beyond them for another story. I think this is part of the reason some authors set different stories in the same universe. It’s easier to work with rules you’ve already established than start over from scratch.
Readers! I’m interested in your thoughts on story-world building. Don’t forget to post your own comment before you go!
I belong to a couple of writers' communities, and sometimes writers have...well, technical problems with their manuscripts. For example, they need to be able to change something throughout the manuscript and it's just not working. So, since I am a geek, I decided to start logging the problems and solutions so other writers could use them too. The new section, called Technology for Writers, is in Archetype Writing's Resources area.