Worldbuilding (part 6: Glaciers and Fjords) (19/4/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

Strictly I supposed glaciers and fjords are a subset of rivers – what passes for rivers in places where the water never really thaws. Like Slatibartfast, I have a fondness for fjords. Basic fjords? Mountainous coasts that were once covered in ice for a long time (to make the glaciers that carved the valleys that become the fjords). Fjords generally have very steep sides and deep water and are a fine place for siting Impenetrable Fortresses Of Doom, since it’s pretty hard to negociate a coastline full of fjords without doing it by sea. They can reach a good long way inland too.

Wikipedia tells you more on glaciers and fjords than you need to know for most world-building purposes, but  really, the point here are the pictures. Look at pictures of fjords and then try to imagine building a world without them? Not possible, right? Absolutely NOT possible.

Here’s a less than perfect fjord picture. The point, really, is HOW THE HELL DO YOU TRAVEL THIS LANDSCAPE WITHOUT A FLY SPELL? This is why Fortresses Of Doom like to live in fjords.

Doubtful Sound

And here’s a picture of a glacial lake. Just because. First person to name the mountain in the background right in the middle wins a copy of King of the Crags and Order of the Scales.

Photoshop lake

Worldbuilding (Part 5: Rivers 101) (11/4/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

By now, the world has oceans and mountains and some climate and weather patterns. I look at rivers next because I want to know where the water is going to be, because generally water means life and the more water there is, the more life there is, and how much water there is controls how much life there is (glibly, but then all of this is glib, and temperature and sunlight have a big influence too – provided there’s water). Rivers also have another purpose though, because rivers can flow through places where there is little rainfall and yet be the basis of civilisation (ancient Egypt revolved around the Nile, and other early civilisations of the middle east revolved around the Tigris and Euphrates). Rivers are also a means of navigation, a relatively easy way to get from one place to another through what might otherwise be hostile territory, be it dense forest or desert.

This may sound stupidly, obvious, but I’ve see maps that fail to obey all of the following simple rules: Rivers flow from high places to low ones. They tend to get bigger and slower as they move from mountains to the sea. In places where the incline is steep, rivers flow fast and tend to be in steep-sided valleys, gorges or even canyons. Rapids and waterfalls are more likely to appear in such places (but some of the world’s largest waterfalls don’t). Rivers merge together rather than diverge, the exception being deltas. In places where the gradient is steep, the course of a river is determined by the topography; in places where the gradient is shallow, rivers flow slowly and have wide gentle valleys and/or floodplains and are likely to meander. Map your rivers with these in mind, but also considering that rivers in warm places will likely be the arteries of the early civilisations of your world.

As usual, when it comes to basic geography, the simple way of finding out how stuff works it to look it up on wikipedia :-)

Wikipedia on rivers. More basic river formation articles here and here. Also Deltas, Canyons and Valleys

Next maybe something on glaciers and fjords, because I like them. And then ecologies and the tricky stuff starts…

Vampires and Werewolves and Witches, Oh My (4/4/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

The random jottings on world-building had got as far as where rain falls and was about to get on to rivers. Then something about living things and ecologies and eventually I might have gotten around to to some humans and cultures and histories and social structures and all that sort of thing. But a blurb I had read to me today makes me want to just zip ahead for a moment, just for a moment, for the benefit of those for whom world-building seems (apparently) to be an utterly pointless exercise.

If anyone who reads this is thinking, even a little bit, about writing a story with a contemporary setting with vampires, werewolves or witches in it, please please please for the love of all things supernatural, give at least SOME thought as to the impact and interactions such creatures will have on society at large. I can think of so many examples where this has been done and done well, to the point of being the dominant theme of the book, but even paying some simple lip-service to the idea that the fact that witches/vampires/werewolves exist might mean something more than having a touch of supernatural to add to ones feisty go-getter heroine or tall dark mysterious hero is probably a really good idea. Or am I missing something. Is it just a guy thing to wonder why vampires burn in the hidious light of the day-star but seem to be just fine in – and in fact positively enjoy -  the reflected hidious light of the day-star that is otherwise known as the full moon. Or indeed in the hideous light of the night-stars which is basically exactly the same. Or to wonder what an immortal super-powered creature might do over the centuries to protect themselves and their interests and how they might do it, and how they might struggle (or not) with the advance of technology. Or wonder what their lives might have been like for the last four hundred years? Or to watch a typical werewolf transformation scene and even before the inevitable nope, special effects still can’t make this not look stupid, think hey, that violated the law of conservation of mass!

Is it just a guy thing to think that creatures such as vampires and werewolves and witches should carry more meaning than merely character with dark yet sexy allure.

It’s just me, isn’t it.

I’ll get me coat.


Oh, and your fairies too.

Worldbuilding (part 4: Climate Change 101) (31/4/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

Until I get to populating the world with some people and setting up their societies and their myths and histories, this is possibly my favourite part of building a world – figuring out the climate. I think, if you’re trying to make something that feels plausibly earth-like, this is one of the hardest parts to get right. It’s pretty abstract, but also very definitely driven by hard physical rules and the topography of the world.

I start with the prevailing winds. Earth, prevailing winds are largely tied to latitude and there’s a pleasantly simple map of them. Without turning into a climatologist, the most important thing to keep in mind at his stage of building a new world is how water is distributed from the sea to the land, the basic rule being that the prevailing winds generally pick up water from the sea and carry it with them to the land and the flatter the land is, the further it will get spread about to fall as rain. So if the prevailing wind hits a fairly gentle expanse of lowlands rain gets spread over a wide area with a bias towards coastal regions (Western Europe is a reasonable exampel of this), while if the prevailing wind hits a mountain range, nearly all the water picked up from the sea will fall on the mountains and on the seaward side, resulting in a very wet climate on one side and a very dry climate on the other (South Island New Zealand for example).This is sort of explained in detail in the Wikipedia article on prevailing winds.

This is all very glib generalisation, but it’s probably good enough to work with two rules of thumb:

1. The prevailing winds carry the bulk of an area’s rainfall. The first mountain range they hit will steal that rain. The land beyond will likely be dry.

2. The further from the sea a place is, the more extreme the temperature change will be between summer and winter (particularly true for coastal regions in the path of the prevailing winds, less so for those where the prevailing wind blows from land to sea).

By far the easierst thing to do is simply find a part of the real world with a similar latitude and a similar topography and then steal its climate :-)

There are plenty of useful resources for this: A world precipitation map, A world climate map, and various other maps from the same site. Or any decent atlas.

Also note that where the rain falls doesn’t necessarily equate to where the people will be.

Next up: rivers.

Worldbuilding (part 3: Topology 101) (31/3/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

Orright orright, we can get to the map now, and from here on in I’m going to assume that that everything is mostly earth-like (barring any features whose origins have already been covered). That is, the world is round, orbits a sun, spins on its axis and has evolved over a very long period of time to become what it is. Just a few notes on the alternatives:

a) If the world is flat then you clearly have a fundamentally difference cosmology and nothing you do from there on in will make any less sense, so I reckon you might as well go to town. Just give it some sort of underlying logic for how the universe works and apply that logic rigorously and you’ll do fine. I had a world that was a 10000km diameter mushroom once. It had an underside that consisted of canyons and ridges all hundreds of miles deep and a 10000km stalk. And really, that was about as far as it went and it worked just fine for what it was intended. Not sure I’d write a novel there though.

Also, a flat earth will struggle to have a magnetic field. Stuff like that.

b) Orbits a sun – see above. If a world does orbit a sun and doesn’t spin on its axis then it ought to be tide-locked to its sun and most of the world will be uninhabitably cold or hot; and if it somehow manages to have an atmosphere that doesn’t simply freeze solid and fall out of the sky on the cold side, the temperature variations are likely to cause constant storms of apocalyptic proportions. To be honest, I haven’t ever looked at this possibility in detail before and it sounds kinda fun, but that’s not where most fantasy worlds go, so that’s not where I’m going with these posts.

c) Didn’t evolve? That how was it made? Created out of nothing by the gods? Fine. Then do what you like. Give your god or gods a little personality and make a world that they would have made. But then we’ve covered this already.

Right. Mountains and seas. Very basically, mountains basically get made by tectonic plates crashing into each other and getting all surly about things (Andes, Sierras, Himalayas) or by volcanic action through soft spots in the earth’s crust (Mid-Atlantic Ridge). These often occur together. Go to wikipedia and read a bit about Plate Tectonics and Formation of Mountains and really you’re about done. Very basic basics? Mountains come in ranges. They can be long linear ones or patches. Old mountains tend to be less steep and thus more habitable and passable, having been eroded over time, while young mountains tend to be sharper and more jagged. Volcanoes can appear in mountain ranges or on their own. They also tend to last a good long time, so old mountains might have been volcanoes once but are now extinct. About the only way you can really go wrong with mountains is to pock-mark them over the world like crates on the moon, to the point where they look like they’re some sort of cosmological acne.

Seas? They fill in the low bits. If you want them to. A world with a much greater proportion of its surface covered in sea is largely going to follow recognisable earth-like behaviour for climate. A much lower proportion and it probably isn’t and the difference is probably going to be less moisture in the air and less rainfall and much larger areas of lifeless desert land. But that’s just an educated guess.

It’s very unlikely that anyone (except maybe me) is going to pick at your map and start pointing out the underlying flaws in your geology. Do what you like, but do the mountains RANGES and the coastlines first because what comes next is the climate and what comes after that are the rivers and the wildlife and that starts to tell you where the people will be, and all that starts with the mountains. If you want the odd solitary mountain added later, that’s not going to upset anything om a wide scale, unless what you add is a solitary mountain that happens to be a hundreds of miles long and twenty miles high.

Done with mountains now. Climate next.

Worldbuilding (part 2: Bob the Builder) (20/3/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

Oh yes, and another thing before you rush off to your map – how did the world begin and what massively major events have happened to it between then and now? It needs a moment of thought at least, and I’m not talking about the creation myths of the peoples who will one day inhabit it, I mean who actually made it? If the answer is has something to do with Professor Brian Cox and Higgs Condensates, then fine. If the world was sneezed out of the left nostril of the Creator during an allergy attack that’s fine too. Everything’s fine, but I ask you to think about it before putting pen to paper in case there are any significant events that would affect either the map or the mythologies of the people who live there. If the world was made by some intelligent design, then why, and was there anything in that reason that cause the physical shape of the world to be a particular way. If there are god-like entities extant in the universe, have their actions at any point drastically shaped the world (the world in which my dragons exist was ripped apart and then badly stitched back together again. Not that you see very much of that in the early books but the consequences are there in the background). If the world was struck by a very large meteor that brought magic/aliens/pot noodles to the world, should there perhaps be a crater on the map (maybe, maybe not)?

The answer to all the above might be don’t know don’t care and that’s fine. All I’m saying is give some thoughts to any (possibly literally) earth-shattering events that might affect your world before you start drawing the map. You can still just add the Great Crater From Which All Pot Noodles Were Spawned later, but honestly really, sorting it out up front is a lot less hassle. [1]

Next week, on to the map, finally.

[1] OK, standard world-builder map-making tip here: Drop some interesting features about the place for which you have no explanation whatsoever.

Worldbuilding (part 1: How to Start) (12/3/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

I keep coming across posts and articles on Worldbuilding and they keep on annoying me because they either don’t do it right (my idea of right which on this matter is objectively and unquestionably and mathematically provably correct) or else (more common) they do some bits but miss out a whole swath of Stuff That Really Matters.

People who say that worldbuilding starts with a map: I’m looking at you.

So I’m going to do my own set of posts on worldbuilding. Nyer. Just so that anyone who wants to can grumble about all the bits I don’t do right and all the stuff I miss out.

I’m going to start with where you start, which isn’t with a map, dammit!

I find there are two distinct places to start with building a world, but they both stem from the question of what it’s for. So start there. Some worlds (particularly those for RPGs in my experience) are built for the purposes of being explored. Neither the builder nor the explorers really have any idea what they specifically want from the world other than for it to be a generically fun place to explore with quirks and features that will inspire ideas for stories. Other worlds are built with the same general premise but with one or two sweeping constraints (I want a desert world; I want an archipelago, that sort of thing). Yet other worlds are built with a whole series of specific constraints (in my experience these tend to be the worlds built after the fact to support a specific story or collection of story-lines). For example a world that needs to have a desert and then an impassable range of mountains that can only be crossed by getting hold of a flying carpet, both of which are littered with the ruins of an old civilisation; and one ruin in the mountains contains a gem deep inside it that can be used to trap the soul of the wicket djinn that’s rampaging about somewhere: and there are probably more constraints in there than are immediately obvious. The physical terrain has simple enough requirements (a desert with some ruins, some mountains with some more), but the mythology and history of the world now have to deliver an ancient society, flying carpets, djinn, soul-trapping gems and the mechanisms by which all these things work and the people who know or knew how to built and maintain them. And then it has to deal with all the logical consequences that follow from these, and that can be excruciatingly tricky and can easily lead to a logical consequence that buggers up the story the world was supposed to support in the first place.

Oh yes, and another thing: context. This is probably a thing that most world-builders take for granted, but chances are that whatever you’re building exists within a greater context. Mostly the greater context is assumed to be “like the real world works” and left at that, and it that’s the way it’s going to be than fine: The world is round, it orbits a sun, tides are made by the moon(s), mountains are made by plate tectonics, valleys are made by rivers and glaciers, apex predators are relatively sparse compared to their prey etc. etc. If any of these things are not true it would beg the question why, but then again if you’re building a fantasy world with either magic or actual real gods (i.e. magic) then they don’t have to be, just as long as there are logically consistent consequences for all deviations. Mountains aren’t made by plate tectonics but are in fact were all brought into being when the God of Being a Git punched the God of Eating Too Much Ice Cream really very hard in the belly and the latter vomited mountains from the sky? Why not? And because it was ice cream than they’re really cold, right, and that’s why they’re covered in snow . . . But then your mountains will be scattered across the world in the shape of barf-splats instead of linear ranges and if you want any volcanoes or earthquakes or tsunamis then you’re going to need to find a new cause for them. Not that that should be hard but it’s not to be taken for granted either.

This isn’t about what the people of your world believe at this point either. This is about how your fictional world was really made. Want a giant inverted mushroom flying through space to be your world? Fine. How did it get there? Are there others? Etc. etc. Maybe you don’t need the context beyond. Doscworld manages well enough without it – but note that it isn’t just a disk. It has its elephants and A’Tuin and that makes all the difference . . .

So three things before you start with the map:

What is the world for?

What constraints are being applied to it?

In what context does it exist?

King of the Crags – the edit begins… in a bit (7/8/09)

Posted in News

Well I got my editor’s comments back on King of the Crags last week. And I’m about to go on holiday, so what’s the point in getting started only to stop again… (but then again, how can I leave it be for two weeks… ah, the tension, the trauma…). I’ve been looking forward to ranting on about the iniquities of the editing process, how all my cool and exciting ideas are being crushed or something like that, but the plain fact is that’s not how it works. What you actually get are some nice congratulatory words on a job well done and a few hints on how to make it even better. Like make sure you don’t lose track of who is related to who (meh… can’t really argue with that), and put a bit more effort into describing the eyries and the mountain scenery (which is fine with me – in a perfect world, I’d live in the mountains. I’d walk in the mountains. I’d write in the mountains. I’d buy one of those indestructible kitten-proof laptops I mentioned last time so that I could write in the mountains in the rain and the snow. I breathe mountains, dammit. In fact, in a perfect world, I’d probably be a mountain). The only thing I can find to really even start to try and raise a head of steam about is the complaint that the book has too many prologues. Is two prologues too many? Really?

Sadly yes. One of the nice things about being able to leave the story alone for six months, you get to see stuff like that a lot more clearly. Unless you go the whole hog, maybe. Yeah, a fantasy consisting of forty-seven prologues and three short chapters entitled ‘beginning’, ‘middle’ and ‘end’. Yeah, actually, maybe…

OK, OK, not King of the Crags, though. I’ll put the spare one up here when I’m done with the edit so you can see what you’re missing. It’s a good chapter. Pity it has to go.


So no, being edited isn’t really that traumatic. What’s traumatic is the terrifying realisation that this is it. This is the last chance, realistically, to make it right. To make it perfect. For some reason, that never really struck me with The Adamantine Palace, but the terror’s got me good this time. In a way The Adamantine Palace was easy. Kick in the door, make a big fuss. Yes, a lot got sacrificed for sheer pace. Right or wrong, that was the intent. It’s pretty clear from the reviews and the other feedback that I’ve had that for a lot of people, this really really works. For others, it really really doesn’t. For those the former, I offer more. For the latter… sorry, but it ain’t going to happen. Maybe next time.

And then there’s the middle ground. The ‘yes, but…’ camp. There’s quite a lot of you, too. Well, Yesbuts, in a way this one was always for you (because let’s face it, we all know I’m going to let rip again in book three). So what am I trying to do? As I sit down and start what will be the final set of re-writes to King of the Crags, what am I trying to achieve?

A long time ago, I read The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad. For most of the book I was a bit bored. The characters struck me as two-dimensional and cartoonish. And then something happened. Just as the horror of the denouement was about to descend, the characters suddenly somehow flipped into three dimensions. The cardboard cut-outs I’d sneered and laughed at suddenly became people with souls. As I watched their world fall apart, I felt guilty and ashamed. That’s just how one book happened to work for me, but it’s haunted me ever since.

So that’s what I’m trying to achieve. I’m trying to recapture that feeling of guilt when a person you took for granted as being horrible crept under your skin while you weren’t looking and turned out to be human after all.

King of the Crags may be slower (not a lot slower, but it will be slower) than The Adamantine Palace. If I’m doing my job right, it will give the world and the characters some more depth. It’ll move events forward, but it’ll also put add a layer underneath everything that happened before. Book three will do the same – another step forward and yet another layer underneath. There will be action, adventure, terror and war. There will be dragons, and I promise they’re not going to go all soft and philosophical on you. You can even, just for those of you who need one, have a character with a strong moral compass. Maybe even two. Not sure why you want them – they’ll probably just get their asses eaten by some dragon and then you’ll get all pissy with me again. But you can have them anyway.

But for those who get to the end and if I’ve done my job really right, the shallow selfish bastard that is Jehal will haunt you long after you put book three down. :twisted:

So that’s the challenge I set myself, and I don’t know whether or not I can do it and it’s probably true to say that I’m as scared witless about launching into this edit as I’ve been about anything.

And at the same time, I can’t wait. Just in case I can get it right.


Oh yeah, and a full draft of book three is written. Needs months of polishing, but it’s all there. Mwah ha ha…

World-Building (26/5/09)

Posted in Critical Failures

I’m beginning to think this doesn’t mean what I thought it meant. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t mean what a lot of other people think it means too. Or else it doesn’t mean what I think a lot of other people think it means. In some contexts. Maybe.

Hmmm. Needs some Ming-the-Merciless beard-stroking this does.

More on this in the future, I think. In the meantime, anyone who thinks they actually know what this means, do speak up.