I’m so pleased to have Tanya Michaels here today! She’s the author of more than 40 short stories, books, novellas and published essays. A popular event speaker (on topics like world building among others) she’s also been nominated for dozens of awards, winning the Published Maggie Award of Excellence, the Booksellers’ Best Bet (two years in a row), the CataRomance Readers’ Choice, and the Sandra Anglain Chastain Service Award. She is also a three-time finalist for Romance Writers of America’s prestigious RITA award.
Now, as promised, Heeeere’s Tanya!
With The Best Man in Texas and the upcoming Texas Baby (Harlequin American, Sept. 2010) I got to do one of my favorite things as a writer—revisit a world I’d already created. It’s like going to see old friends! I don’t know why it took me so long in my career to start writing connected books because, as a reader, I’ve always enjoyed series.
Fantasy series in particular offer amazing instances of world-building, whether it’s Tolkien’s Middle Earth, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, George R.R. Martin’s Westeros, or Jacqueline Carey’s Terre D’Ange. But I’ve also seen amazing world-building in standalone books set in the “every day” world. Jennifer Crusie’s contemporary romance Bet Me comes to mind. Her location was no more exotic than Ohio, but she definitely sucked me into that world—I totally wanted to have drinks with the characters at The Long Shot bar and eat chicken marsala at Emilio’s.
To me, reading that book felt very interactive. A fictional world should never be just a green-screen, the landscaped props behind your characters; it should feel three dimensional. It should contain a society (which can be as small a microcosm as a family of four or a few co-workers in a dysfunctional office). And there are certain building-blocks that all societies have shared, from bygone historical days to the present. Many of these same building blocks appear in most of the sci-fi/futuristic fiction I enjoy, too—whether it’s books, movies or shows.
While I don’t think stories should be written as fill-in-the-blank templates, here are a just a couple of elements to keep in mind if you want to build a world (taken from my workshop World-Building for Your Werewolf, Duke, or Small Town Doctor). What’s the political structure? Is it matriarchal? Militaristic? Groupthink? (In the show “House,” I think you could argue that the political structure is tyranny.)
What do the people there value? Gold, information, a damn good chicken marsala? A believable world needs both moral values and material values, although material doesn’t always mean money. (“He who controls the spice controls the universe.”) What the people value can not only make your world more distinctive, it can help drive the plot.
What if the thing they value the most is jeopardized, or the story takes them on a quest that makes them re-examine their values? In Kresley Cole’s hot paranormal romance Kiss of A Demon King, the heroine was a vegetarian and the hero was a self-confessed carnivore. While that was by no means the main conflict of the book, it was just one more supporting parallel of the differences between them, how the way of life one of them held dear was initially reviled by the other. They both had a lot of adjusting to do before they earned their happily ever after.
In my upcoming Texas Baby, most of the hierarchy from the book comes from the office where both the hero and heroine work and the thing most valued to both of them is family. Societies also have common language, whether it’s a dialect spoken (Elvish, Klingon) or simply regional slang or a catchphrase used between friends. And all societies have their own stories and legends, whether they’re religious parables sacred and kept by worship leaders or simply a familiar anecdote told every year around the Thanksgiving table.
And thank God for those stories! I love discovering new stories and new writers just as much as I love telling stories and creating new characters. My hope is that I write characters other readers will want to spend time with and worlds that they will recognize and want to revisit.