Tag Archives: world building

Nine Worlds: How to Think About Historical Fiction


Historical fiction is the orphan of genre criticism, with a low-to-invisible scholarly profile despite its expansive reach, popularity and cultural penetration. Yet of all the major branches of genre fiction, it has always sat closest to the what we would now understand as the poetics of fan fiction, going back to Greek myth’s fictionalisation of the cultural memory of the Mycenaean world. It is possible to argue that fan culture is actually the superset of what scholars do: that historical engagement with the past and the interpretative narratives that we construct to compensate for its inaccessibility are themselves forms of unacknowledged desires for the unattainable other on the far shore of time.

Dr. Nick Lowe, Dept.of Classics, Royal Holloway University

I hadn’t originally intended to go to this talk but the one I’d planned to attend was completely full and this was just across the corridor. I’m so glad things played out that way. Dr. Lowe is a fascinating and energetic speaker, and a huge Greek mythology fanboy. My dissertation, way back in the day, was about the development of story themes from Ancient Persian epics into Ancient Greek ones so I went to chat to him after the presentation. It turned out he knew my old tutor and we geeked out together about how great the man is. Which was all kinds of awesome.


The Macrotext of Historical Fiction

The stories of Greek mythology are the first shared universe that we have record of. They were shared far beyond Greece (which wasn’t much more than city states until around 400 B.C.) to Macedonia and on (courtesy of Alexander the Great) into the Persian Empire. It was a rebootable, retconable corpus of stories which contemporary audiences were deeply engaged with and expert in. All the known poets and playwrights of the era created their stories within this shared cultural property. It was, basically, early fan culture. This creates a pressure towards the democratisation of created ownership. The mythological world belonged to no-one and everyone, and everyone could create within it.

History itself has become a macrotextual setting. Historical fiction measures the gap between what we claim to know and what we desire to know. It also contains nostalgia over unacknowledgable or inexperienceable concepts, such as imperialism, immoral sex, etc.

There’s no truth in history. It’s all competing theories. ~ Dr. Nick Lowe

The past is the macrotext, historical records and academic analysis is the corpus of canon works, and historical fiction is how we try to measure the gaps.

Remembering History


Definitely more fiction than history

Homer’s Iliad was the first piece of historical fiction on record. 500 years after the events of the Trojan War (or wars – archaeology suggests that the site we believe Troy was located, now called Hislarlik, suffered multiple wars over a relatively short time frame), the Iliad was an attempt to recreate the end of the Mycenaean era after a dark age when literary skill was lost and much of history forgotten.

We can’t date episodic memories in order, without writing them down. Human memories don’t work like that. The Iliad started life as a number of episodic oral poems which were stitched together to create the epic. Chinese and early Greek historiography, which ostensibly moved away from fictionalisation and towards reported fact, used episodic or fragmented stories in order to piece events together. Herodotus then used epic poem structure to try and revolutionise how history was remembered.

Early Chinese historiography was generally formed out of commentaries in annals. They weren’t sweeping narratives – that’s very much a Western tradition. The West “founded their history in drama whereas all other cultures of historiography are founded in lyric”.

Narrative structure, with first person retellings, are repeated throughout Western historical documents. This suggests narratological and ideological common approaches perpetuated down the ages. It also demonstrates a need to have an embedded character viewpoint in any story. This, combined with the Western understanding of story structure, forces it into similar shapes, which then become tropes.

Retelling History

You only need to read the first thirty books on Alexander the Great to realise the writers aren’t reading each other. Apart from Mary Renault, which everyone reads.   ~ Dr. Nick Lowe

Despite this macrotextual setting of world history, there’s massive potential for inconsistency. We can’t truly know what that world was like, so everyone interprets it differently. The repertoire of emotions is partly culturally constructed, so a historical novel written in 1950s Britain will inevitably differ hugely from one written in 2010s France. The past is another country and characters should behave as culturally appropriate, which is to say different from now. It’s hopelessly naive to think we can trust contemporary accounts or later academic analysis to give anything close to the true picture.

Historical fiction therefore allows us to experience many possible versions of the past. It also shows us how narrative structure pushes us to think about historical culture in certain terms, and how established events can be interpreted in wildly different ways.

Next week: heroism and morality in genre fiction.

Nine Worlds: Feedback Loops & Transmedia Storytelling


Two academic talks: “The Afterlife of the Dalek Emperor – Spinoff material, canon and intertextuality in Doctor Who” by Fiona Moore and Alan Stevens, and “Roleplaying games: transmedia studies and producer/consumer relationships” by Allen Stroud.

Okay, so this blog post won’t actually be about that, exactly. Whilst I am a Doctor Who fan, it’s in a fairly casual way. I don’t know the original series or the wider verse, and Moore and Stevens clearly care way more about this stuff than I do. So mostly this blog post will be about Allen Stroud’s paper, with the occasional Moore/Stevens comment thrown in where relevant.

Consumption & Creation

At its simplest, transmedia storytelling is the use of multiple media channels to tell a story, be they books, TV, film, radio, audiobooks, comics, graffiti, semaphore or smoke signals from distant mountain tops. Different media requires the story to be told in different ways (it’s hard to get the complexities of internal dialogue into smoke signals, for example) so the nature of the story alters depending on the channel in use. 

The consumer’s (the term ‘reader’ isn’t always applicable here for obvious reasons) experience of the story is still usually linear. You mostly consume a story via different formats consecutively, rather than trying to take in multiple channels at once. But transmedia storytelling means that the narrative itself isn’t necessarily linear. It’s fragmented, with lots of different perspectives and potentially lots of different starting points:

multi linear transmedia

Reproduced by kind permission of Allen Stroud

  • Multi-linear transmedia narrative means that the entry point can be anywhere and the story should still work.
  • Fragmented narrative means that the consumer must collect all the pieces of the story in order for it to make sense.
  • Layered narrative means each piece of chapter will stand alone as a single story but the more the consumer experiences, the more information they have around the story and therefore the greater their understanding.

The consumer therefore starts to make choices (knowingly or not) about what content or chapter is consumed in what order via which medium. With layered narratives, they have to put in ‘more than non-trivial effort’ in order to engage with the story, such as codes, seeking out more chapters on other channels, and so on. This is called ergodic literature.

This is also the point at which the consumer can start to contribute, which can lead to issues of content ownership (and this is where my notes from Moore/Stevens become relevant). Does fan-made content contribute to the creation of a wider story universe, and a dialogue between consumer and creator? Or does it represent a risk to IP rights? In the Doctor Who universe, the writers apparently need to keep a strict provenance of ideas and steer very clear of incorporating known fan ideas in order to avoid IP challenges. This obviously impacts their options on where they can take the story (as described in TV Topes’ article on Ascended Fanon, which gives multiple examples of this actually happening).

Working in Expanded ‘Verses

When you have multiple people contributing to the same story you end up with an expanded universe, or intertextuality – dialogues between different media within a single wider setting. This in turn leads to an external body of knowledge, or referential code, which builds up the distinctive features of that setting and allows consumers to fill in assumptions without always explaining them.

Take Bram Stoker’s Dracula as an example origin text. Modern vampire stories have to acknowledge stakes, garlic and so on because consumers already have that body of knowledge around the expected setting.

In a way, this gives power back to the consumer – the popular definition of the setting becomes more powerful and important than the reality or the origin text. At the very least, the expectation has to be acknowledged before it can be subverted.


Legally, expanded ‘verses can be problematic. In a collaborative franchise project who actually owns the IP? Do individual writers own individual plotlines and characters? If so, how do you ensure continuity? In the Doctor Who ‘verse, where this used to be the case, the wider story ended up with unresolvable contradictions. So should the franchise own everything? Is that fair on the individuals who are actually creating the story?

Macro to Mega

There’s a couple of handful terms for thinking about this stuff, and framing it:

  • Mythopoeia is “the weave within the story narrative primarily designed to project depth.” So, hinting at a wider universe which this singular story doesn’t have time to go into. Lies of Locke Lamora is a good example of this.
  • Megatext is “a shared subconscious catalogue of familiar themes in a genre.” We’re back to Bram Stoker and garlic, stakes, etc. with this. Where the theme of the setting is something widely known by the audience and written in by multiple non-collaborative authors who collectively build up a knowledge base.
  • Macrotext is “the guide for a specific fictional world, the frame work through which a large project of multiple outputs can be devised.” The worlds of Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, and so on. Any specified universe which ends up being used collaboratively and which therefore requires some consistent record.

Stroud made the point that macrotexts can be ‘mutable’. There will always be corners of the universe that haven’t previously been detailed and which can therefore be added to. This in effect keeps such fictional worlds alive and evolving. The trick is to avoid contradiction with established facts, as that’s how you break a devoted reader’s immersion. Which is where databases like Wookieepedia come in.

Next week: transformative works and the colonisation of historical space, which has more stuff on macro text and shared universe creation.

Nine Worlds: Foreign Languages in Genre Fiction


A discussion of how and why real – not invented – languages are used in science fiction, fantasy, horror and historical fiction, on page and screen. How accurately are they used and does verisimilitude matter? What assumptions do authors make about their audiences’ linguistic competence and identity?

Katrin Thier, Catherine Sangster, Simon Trafford

I loved this panel. I’ll state that now, for the record, because I took a lot of notes and might be about to go off on an enthusiastic rant. Much of what was said falls firmly into the ‘oh my god, that’s so obvious now you’re explained it’ category, but it mostly wasn’t stuff I’d thought of before.

Languages, like so many things in culture (colour is another prime example), are almost always used in literature to call up particular associations. They can alienate the reader or evoke particular emotions. They can demonstrate a difference in culture, social strata or education. In one period of British history, for example, the poor spoke English and the rich spoke French.

How to Use Language in Fiction

If you use a real language and you get it wrong, there are people who will notice. As with any poorly researched detail, this is how you lose or even antagonise readers. Google Translate won’t cut it. Find someone who can actually speak the language, or make it obvious that it isn’t correct (like the Latin in Harry Potter). Bear in mind that a lot of languages have sounds, letters and grammatical structures that English doesn’t. It’s very easy to get it wrong. That said, there’s a general assumption of monolingualism in modern audiences, meaning you need to use fairly basic markers to identify a foreign language. This will inevitably impact the accuracy.


Gallifreyan doesn’t even use the same method of writing

Don’t have foreign characters sprinkle bits of their own language into common speech. This isn’t realistic. If they’re going to drop back into their mother tongue, make it a whole sentence. It doesn’t necessarily matter if the reader can’t understand what they’re saying – the characters don’t have to understand each other either! You can always have one character ask for a translation, or an explanation of pronunciation if it’s important. Alternatively, you can have written translation devices so the listening character doesn’t understand the conversation in real-time but can review a report later. Biological translators, such as the Babel Fish in Hitchhiker’s Guide, are also a neat way around it.

If you’re using multiple languages and want the reader to be able to understand them all, one easy way of doing so is to use different fonts to denote different languages. Bear in mind, though, that not all editors and publishers like this. It also creates a variable look which might throw the reader out of immersion so think hard before you take this route.

Creating a Language

There’s a difference between a constructed language (such as Sindarin), and a fake language (such as Dovahzul) which mashes exotic sounds together without an underlying structure. If you’re going to use the language in any way extensively, a constructed language is a better bet.

What language tree would your created language come from? What associations does that bring about the culture which uses it? Remember that it needs to tie in and impact your fantasy culture (see the mention of German and Japanese two weeks ago). Also remember that insults and idioms tend to be culturally specific. In the past, I’ve looked up insults native to the particular culture I’m using as a base and translated them, which has given me some nicely unusual turns of phrase as well as that slightly exotic association.


You can go much further back than this. Language trees are awesome maps of history.

Also, remember that, when you’re creating genre fiction, you’re not creating in a vacuum. The influences on you are also familiar to your audience. If you co-opt Klingon, there’s a good chance they’ll notice.

There’s no agreed models for how to transcribe non-standard varieties of English (such as Scottish). As a writer, you need to achieve a balance between authenticity and comprehensibility. Personally, I don’t like reading literal pronunciations on the page – I think the reader has to work too hard to understand what’s going on and what the accent is, which throws them out of immersion. If you can make it clear with use of vocabulary and idiom, that’s much smoother.

Examples & Associations

Welsh was used in The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper to evoke mystery and ancient magic. There’s a psychological association with something alien but not foreign, which is very hard to achieve otherwise.

Mandarin was used in Firefly to signpost a new / future developed culture and history. It showed natural bilingualism as a common thing, even for uneducated characters. It was also a handy way of getting around the real life censors! The problem, however, is that it called up connotations that weren’t then fulfilled – read Frustrations of an American Asian Whedonite to see some of the traps of using a real world language without following through on the implications.


For an English-Mandarin culture, there’s an odd lack of Asian people in the Verse

Latin is the archetypal dead language, even though it’s not that dead! (Still actively used in science and medicine, for example.) There are a number of entrenched attitudes towards it, which always condition how we feel about the thing it’s being used for. Firstly, it’s indivisible from Western culture, easily recognisable and doesn’t need to be explained. By using Latin, you are making a very strong statement about the background culture. It is a status language which carries ideas of antiquity (both classical and renaissance), education (law, medicine, science), and religion.

In Harry Potter, ‘low’ spells such as cleaning have a Germanic base; ‘high’ spells have a Latin base. There are strong status implications, and possibly also gender ones. Interestingly, the two spells which use a Greek base are both healing spells. There’s apparently a fascinating essay called Ancient Tongues in the Wizarding World by M.G. DuPree which is well worth a read, but I’m afraid I couldn’t find an online link.

This led me onto a really interesting conversation with Simon Trafford after the panel. What about using other dead (deader) languages? I don’t speak Latin but I have used the one language I do know – Akkadian (aka Ancient Persian) – in my writing. How does that work? We decided that the more esoteric the language, the more work you have to do to explain where it comes from and set up the associations you want the reader to make. You do, however, have much greater freedom in defining those associations. Latin is instantly recognisable but you’re locked into working with the reader’s understood connotations.

Next week: women in SFF publishing.

Nine Worlds: A Whole New World


Economics, geography, infrastructure – it’s the background stuff that, like concrete breeze blocks, comes off as the dull, uninteresting graft of world creation. But what makes it come alive and make sense for the reader? What makes people care, and what makes a fictional culture viable?

Edward Cox, Al Robertson, Stephanie Saulter, Chris Wooding, Genevieve Cogman, James Barclay

I’ve talked about world building before. It’s one of my favourite parts of storytelling. This panel covered a fair amount of familiar ground. I’ll recount most of it but I won’t go into in depth discussion because I’ll just end up repeating myself. Also, for the most part the panellists didn’t offer tips so much as a list of questions the writer needs to ask themselves.

2011-MAR-Worldbuilding-vladstudio-300x228Getting started

Will your world be similar to something the reader is already familiar with – either based on an existing culture, or an AU version of history? Or will it be something completely new?

When setting up a culture, all the details should interconnect. It needs to be internally consistent. Remember that every detail will have ramifications on the rest. For example, the language in Germany and Japan fosters a culture of listening, because their grammar structure means sentences don’t make sense until the end.

Scarcity of resources is very important, and the work-arounds of your cultures to this scarcity is what makes the world different. Scarce resources impacts trade, economy, social structure and status, international relations, and so on. As one panellist said:

Writing fantasy worlds is about logistics.

Also, and this is a point Dr. Nick made in our panel later, don’t muck about with physics. If you’re going to break natural laws, break one, make it explicit, explain it, think about the ramifications, and then leave it alone.

The world as a character

Creating worlds is not that different from creating characters, and they are intrinsically linked as the characters should be a product of their environment. Similarly, both should have some kind of growth arc, especially if the plot focuses on momentous events.

One of the panellists suggested that your plot is an inevitable consequence of your world and character building. The world influences the character, the character reacts to the world, and that’s your plot. I’m not wholly on board with this idea, as it smacks a little of the plot progression also being inevitable and therefore predictable. It also raised questions in my mind about character agency and free will.

Place names is a good way to give character/flavour/insight to the local culture. It tells a lot about what people consider to be important or notable, without having to actually spell it out. One of the most valuable skills in epic fantasy, according to the panel, is learning how to transmit information without explaining it. It’s all about implication and evocation.

Think about clever, different and powerful ways to impact information, in a way readers don’t realise they’re being told about history or economics. Preferably a way that also advances the plot. For example, Stephanie Saulter had to explain that there was an economic slump in her culture, leading to a shortage of jobs, so she set a scene in a job centre where people were literally fighting over work.

To map or not to map?

The panel diverted into quite a long discussion about the value of providing maps for the reader. Several of them were quite strongly against publishing maps, on the basis that it locks the writer down into inflexibility. As Saulter (I think) said:

The author reserves the right to have a better idea.

One panellist suggested that, if a map is provided, people can just look at it. If there’s no map, the reader has to visualise the journey and that means they are immediately more intimately engaged with the fictional landscape.

On the other hand, maps can help avoid unnecessary exposition. When the characters need to get from Point A to Point B, they don’t need to have a clunky discussion about where Point B is or how to get there. The reader can just look at the map.

If you’re using a real place as your setting, make sure you use a map as a writing resource. If you get details wrong, knowledgeable readers will notice and immediately switch off.

And, one final point on the subject of providing maps for your readers: remember that maps can be in-character inaccurate! If you can have an unreliable narrator (of which, more on that in a few weeks), there’s no reason why you can’t have unreliable resources.

Next week: the development and role of SF&F.


If you do have a map, pay for a proper artist. The world isn’t really made of hexagons.


What in the World? Researching Settings


Apologies for my recent absence. I don’t really have an excuse. Life just gets short on spoons occasionally. (For those who aren’t aware of Spoon Theory, I can’t recommend reading it highly enough. It isn’t only applicable to those with illnesses.)

Anyway, I’m making an effort to get back in the saddle. This is largely prompted by the upcoming Nine Worlds Convention – a three-day celebration of all things geek. My experience of conventions is comparatively limited but I had an absolute ball at the World Fantasy Convention back in 2013 so I’m hugely looking forward to this. Not least because I’ve got myself involved in speaking on a panel discussion about the use of research in world-building.


Obviously there’s a HUGE amount to say on this subject and I’ve said much of it already on this blog. Important points include:

  • Building on existing cultures to give your audience an easy and textured hook into your setting
  • Picking something small (such as currency) and extrapolating from there
  • Stealing random ideas from history, because it’s frequently weirder than fiction
  • Avoiding jarring your audience out of immersion by Not Getting Things Wrong

The context of this particular discussion, however, revolves specifically around building worlds that the audience will interact with, be it in computer games, LARP, or collaborative storytelling. I’ve been asked to get involved due to London Under, and the research that was done there to bring local history into the game.

One of my aims with the London Under setting was to blur the line between reality and fantasy as much as possible, in order to bring my audience deeper into the world. To that end, I tied in the history of the immediate area as well as news stories. Many of the fantastical plots stemmed from a real-life event. The building of the Thames Tideway Tunnel, for example, became a major point of gang territorial warfare; the Dutch Elm Disease of the late 1960s was revealed to be a piece of biological terrorism committed by one sect of dryads against another. I wanted people to walk down a street, or read a newspaper, weeks later and know something about it – partly true, partly fantastical, and occasionally difficult to tell where the line was.

There’s an obvious problem with this, which is the issue of timeliness. Using current news stories means that the setting and plot has a very high risk of dating quickly. Anything based on, for example, Thatcherism feels old fashioned now and that sense of the old-fashioned will carry over in the audience’s mind into your world setting. On the other hand, if done well, it gives your world an extra dimension of historical reality – one you don’t need to explain in detail because the audience will fill in the gaps for you. And that unconscious gap-filling means they are more emotionally invested in your setting. They understand something about it, have brought it closer to their own world, and it’s more real to them as a result.

To be honest, I’ve no idea what the panel discussion will end up covering on the day. Do come along and find out! My dear friend Dr. Nick will, in a weird quirk of coincidence, also be taking part (doctorate in naval architecture =  really good at designing spaceships and dirigibles), as will Jeanette Ng and Russell Smith. Let me know if you think there are any other points or questions that ought to be raised. And please come say hi – it would be lovely to see you there. 🙂

The Toothy Zeitgeist: Zombies & Vampires & Politics, Oh My!



I have been vaguely following, with a sense of impeding doom, the US presidential election. Now, I can’t pretend that the political landscape in the UK is in any way sane or stable, but at least we don’t have a Trump-like candidate. It’s a low bar but I continue to be grateful we meet that.

If Trump – or any Republican candidate, for that matter – does get into the White House, the result will very likely be zombies. I mean that fairly literally. The popularity of certain monsters goes in circular trends and, according to this article, is strongly linked to the dominant political party of the time.

Okay, so it’s an article by Cracked.com. Not the internet’s most reliable source of information. But it makes several good points, the most important of which is an awareness of what your audience currently fears. If you want to create an adversary that is genuinely scary for your readers, work out what the fears of contemporary society are and riff on that.

portrait_of_a_slender_man_by_sophiemcphearson-d2xxs71_3154772The rise of the Slenderman myth is a perfect example of this. It taps into the digital zeitgeist of Big Brother always watching, of ignorance in the age of information, of facelessness when identity has never been more stressed.

When creating your story, or building your world, you can take this further. The monsters of your fictional societies are a great way to show (not tell) the base fears of that society. If they fear werewolves, that might suggest a society with an emphasis on controlled emotions and protocol. If they fear witches, that might suggest a strongly patriarchal society. Monsters are the epitome of Other – by defining Other you therefore define Normal, and vice versa.

The definition of ‘monster’ can get fluid, and this is where you need to be a bit careful. Orcs could be called monsters of Middle Earth, for example, but they are a sentient and civilised (in the strictest definition) race. Vikings were considered as bad as werewolves by 9th Century Europeans, and the Ancient Greeks viewed the Ancient Persians in a similar light. Make sure you know the difference between ‘monster’ and ‘foreigner’; between ‘other’ and ‘same but different’.

Yes, Trump, I’m looking at you.