world building: let there be light

My novel is set in an underground city. Never, at any point in the story, do the characters leave this city. Food, water, and shelter are still essential, but the uniqueness of the situation makes lighting, heat, and ways of keeping time just as important.


Candles
Tallow candles, candles made from condensed fat, are the source of light for the poorest of the poor. They are smoky, they smell, provide little light, and burn quickly. Even the common humans prefer to use other sources, and these are kept as emergency reserves.

Wax candles are more common to craftsmen, in particular, as they create less smoke and last longer than tallow. In addition, wax candles can be marked and burned to provide clocks. Less practical, ornate candles are also used in the highest districts, as they are more aesthetically pleasing than oil lanterns. Carving out elaborate candles is an established form of art.

Ever-burners are candle hybrids; they provide only a pin-prick of light, and are most commonly used for marking pathways. These candles are made to last far longer than most candles, and can be found along servant’s hallways, roads, and many public buildings in the upper quarters. The University also uses them as decorations in one of their larger hallways to recreate the major star formations on special occasions.

Torches
Torches are also used by the poor, and are by and large considered better alternatives for those who would otherwise be using tallow candles. Torches are usually made out of twisted scrap wood that can not be used for building (as plant material that grows from geothermal heat is farmed professionally for its by-products in the lower and warmer levels). The drawback to torches is that in caves and tunnels, the air can hold pockets of flammable gases, and they are not the safest source of light available. They will burn for a little over an hour.

Oil Lamps
This is the safest source of light to use, a good oil lamp is expensive. The best are cased in metal and glass, and have mechanisms inside for lighting the wick, for trimming the wick, and for extinguishing the flame quickly. Different models are available, and because the Mordache are good with glass work, some can be very fragile. Some oil lamps are little more than open flames, wicks dipping into a glass sphere with the flame out in the open (usually hung from the ceiling), some are meant to be stationary pieces.

Phosphorus Lamps

Phosphorus was first made by distilling off phosphorus vapor from precipitated phosphates heated in a retort. The precipitated phosphates were made from ground-up bones that had been de-greased and treated with strong acids. (From Wikipedia: link.)

Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? In addition to being a low-heat light source (the lamps in Vastii glow from four hours to almost five days, depending on the mixture), making phosphorus can poison and kill the chemist trying to distill it. The method above describes the first commercial use of phosphorus in the 19th century, but as light is so important in Vastii, and since phosphorus can be discovered in urine, it’s not unreasonable to adopt the same refining techniques.

Phosphorus is flammable, however it does not burn hot, and doesn’t need much oxygen. The typical phosphorus lamps are glass globes, sealed, and bound with metal. The advantage to phosphorus lamps is that they can be swung, turned on their sides, and as long as the seal remains in place, they won’t explode if exposed to very flammable gases.

Fire Bowls
Very commonly seen in the first several levels: public lighting is a sign of wealth, and the most impressive are fire bowls, metal bowls bearing burning oil mixtures. Depending on what has been added to the oil, the color of the flame can be changed to purple, red, orange, green, or blue. These bowls are set on the ground, or hung like a chandelier.

The most impressive fire bowl in the city is in the Arena, where a balcony that hangs over the Pit uses oil like a fountain. The exterior of the Arena is sculpted in the form of a reclining god, over a hundred feet fall and spanning the four levels that the Arena cuts through, and this balcony is an outstretched hand in the center of the city. Formally, this balcony was used as a place of execution. During special events, oil will seep along the edges and create a burning fountain, droplets of burning oil falling into the Pit and attracting attention all through the city with the spectacle.


Sources:
Wikipedia: A history of candle making
Wikipedia: Phosphorus
Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook 3.5

world building: introducing vastii

Blue Crystal is set entirely in a city called Vastii. I’ll touch on that next, before I get down to the basics: food, water, clothes, shelter, light. I should mention first that this is a large city, complicated, and I should probably take two weeks just to cover the different levels, not to mention some of the notable buildings.

So, this is a brief, incomplete overview to give an idea of the setting before I delve into other essentials.

Vastii, the king’s city: ruled by the Kanichende family, whose crest is a serpentine dragon in gold curling across a field of stars. Vastii is built into the ground, into the shaft of a now dormant volcano and covered over to protect the residents from the cold on the surface. Temperatures here range from roughly -5 to -20 degrees Celsius, depending on where in the city you are. There are places even warmer deep in the earth, but the trade-off is sulfur and other various forms of gas. Dig too far down, and eventually magma will be rediscovered. References to glowing rivers are a very common form of profanity.

A Map of Vastii

Vastii is built around a very large, circular hole in the earth, called the Pit. Along the Pit runs a long road that descends counter-clockwise, always keeping the open ledge on the left as it goes further down. This is called the Spiral Highway. Carts, shipments, anything moving from one level of the city to another will be transported (under heavy guard) along this route. Though it’s a good path to take for someone who doesn’t wish to get lost in the tunnels, it can also be very dangerous. The easiest way to commit a murder in Vastii is to shove a man off of the edge, and there are no rails.

At the very top of the Spiral Highway is the palace, which is build into the stone at the top. As the residents of Vastii had carved and dug their city rather than building it per say, the idea of building roofs are lost in their architects. They prefer to make elaborate facades without defining an external structure, which would take much more work. Across the Pit from the palace is the university, which also takes up a space on the level below it. Not far from that is the Arena, which takes up four levels and provides stairs. Using the arena, a man can move quickly from the fifth level of the city to the second.

Each level of the city is defined by the palace. The palace begins the first level, and where the road moves under the palace walk is where the second level begins. Furthermore, they define their addresses by level, then radial degrees, then distance from the edge of the Pit. The palace, for instance, is 1:00:75, with ’75’ being the distance in yards to the palace gate (through a long path of sculpture and rock gardens). The University is 1-2:175:05, indicating that the structure spans two levels, is almost exactly halfway across the Pit from the palace (175 degrees), and begins only fifteen yards away from the edge. The Arena is at 2-5:220:00, as the Spiral highway moves through the Arena’s facade.

Beyond the Arena is the craftsmen’s district, and after that, the very humble cave dwellings of the common men. Most don’t bother with addresses down there; once you get past the seventh level there’s no point in counting. No one respectable lives down there, no one who would know or use an address. Of course, there are numerous side streets that link to the Spiral Highway. Near the bottom they move like the tunnels of burrowing insects, the middle is filled with nonsensical but helpful routes to spare travelers from needing to take trips around the highway, and the top levels have long, straight avenues, each home with its own address given by the city’s cartographers.

world building: introducing the black

I don’t like naming planets. Somewhere inside my head, I reject the idea. Our planet has a hundred different names, and none at all if you think about it. Earth. Terra. Dirt. Land. We’re too familiar with our world to give it a proper name, and the same must be true on any planet that a race lives on. I’ll start by noting the world’s most drastic geographic feature instead.

There is no sun.

This is not technically true, of course. Yes, it’s fantasy, but on the whole I prefer to write low fantasy, which tries to be very realistic. Unless it’s a planned side-effect of my supernatural elements, I try to make every effort not to bend the laws of physics and nature. There is a sun. But the inhabitants have never seen it.

There are stars in the sky, bright ones, and when the day is half over they are replaced by a wall of darkness that sweeps over everything, plunging the world into darkness (and is known by various names, most of which translate to simply ‘the black’). Their world is not a happy place, persay. The surface in uninhabitable for the most part, covered with dry snow that picks up easily in the howling wind. There are oceans, yes. If you can find them under the ice. Temperatures on the surface range from -40 to -50 degrees (Celsius), about the temperature of Northern Siberia in the winter.

The solar system my world is placed in has a sun slightly older than our own, a little larger, not quite as warm or bright. It has several planets orbiting around it, and one of them is a gas giant with several moons of various sizes. One, a little over nine-tenths of the earth’s size, is capable of sustaining life, but the drawback is that it very nearly matches the giant’s rotation cycle. As the gas giant completes a year, the moon orbits around the planet once, and in doing so stays at about the same position in relation to the sun. This populated moon has spent centuries spinning along quietly in its host’s shadow.

Long enough for its societies to collapse, its cities to fall. The preparations for the long dark were spoiled, generations after stopped learning from their parents. As the world rotated from stars to black, men lost their grasp on technology, forgot that the sun would someday return, and devolved into a much more primal race.

world building month: participants

Here is a list of the participants for World Building Month, one day early as promised.

Latecomers are welcome (just comment with a URL of where you’ll be posting, same to anyone whom I might have missed (though I hope not)). Participants without links for will still be listed, but I’d still love to get a URL from you guys.

Eliza Wyatt
Saint Know-All
Kaya Alder
Merrilee Faber
RG Sanders
Nils
Nymeria
Cirellio
AC Gaughen
Natania Barron
Alex Moore
Ken Kiser
ShadowSaine
Aeronwy
Agarithia
Writer
Otempora
SMD
Goldirocks
JanVanHove
Selonus
M.C. Williams
K. Jayne Cockrill
jenniedee
Storytellingofravens

So, we have some familiar faces, many new ones. This looks like a really fun crowd, and I know that there are some really talented authors participating. Looking forward to see what everyone comes up with!

world building topics

I’ve been working on a (rough) list of all the topics that world building could cover in speculative fiction, which quickly became too long and ambitious to ever be able to cover in a month. Still, I think it could probably serve as a guide or inspiration. Most of these topics overlap.

Topic list:
Continue reading

invitation to world building month

This is the official invitation!

August is going to be dedicated to world-building, here, and on any other blog or site that wishes to participate. We’re going to be exploring everything; history, art, politics, geography, map-making, town-building, magic, science, rumor mills, everything that provides a setting for writing. Any medium of exploring these topic is welcome, from essays to writing samples to artwork. This is an open project. As with Villain Month, I’ll be showcasing people’s work every week.

Interested in participating? Just leave a comment, and be sure to include the URL where you’ll be posting your own projects.

June’s Villain Month was a great success; here’s hoping that World Building Month can do the same!

a precursor to world building month

Once upon a time, when I was trying to avoid defining a plot, a beginning, or an end to the vague story-idea I had in my mind (a few years ago– internet role play, of all things, taught me how to move a story along, but that’s another issue entirely), I used to build static characters that only had situations, not actions, and worlds with details but not events. I made maps. I drew terrain, and defined linguistic patterns so that I could have realistic naming conventions for the cities.

Saint Know-All brought up the point that world-building can be completely distracting from the writing process, and I thought that I’d address that. World building is done to enrich your story. It requires action, and relevance to the project. It needs to contribute. After all, there’s not much point detailing characters that won’t be mentioned in the story. And world-building is important in genres other than fantasy and sci-fi.

Building a planet, galaxy, alien races, and government are all world-building. But so is defining the layout of a character’s house, the kind of furniture in the front room, the name of the street that said character lives on, the gossip that is spread around, and the statue that was defaced in the local park. No one can completely define the place they’re writing… and when you start mapping out blades of grass, you’ve probably gone too far. So first, before we begin our world building project, we’ll need to define its scope.

Simply put, where does the story go, what topics does it consider or touch on, and what are we going to see most often? Detail that.

For instance, if your character is a member of the local nobility, you should have a very, very good idea of how their system works, what the local issues are, and what duties fall to whom in the government. Even if a king isn’t introduced, you should know what kind of man he is and what he will and will not involve himself with. What people eat halfway across the world from said character will not be considered important, unless the character has a penchant for foreign delicacies.

world building woes

Recently I started reading an enormous book (700+ pages) that had, among other things, fantastic world building. History… no, it wasn’t just history. It was economic history, military history, artistic history, mythological history, the history of arcana, discrepancies between the histories and difference of opinion based on source. It spanned racial customs, clothes, weather, standards for different classes, idioms, the difference between different districts in a city, children’s skipping rhymes. It included little details, always relevant, always practical: a minor character took a room not far from a butcher, and the main character can’t help but notice the smell every time he comes by to see her. And the method of immersion into this world was so well done that finding more about it felt as if I were slipping into a steaming bath, or cuddling up to a down blanket. I get excited when the author writes a few pages of summary or explanation; I feel as if I can safely laugh at the show-don’t-tell Nazis now that I’ve seen it done so well, so efficiently, in such an entertaining and smooth fashion.

I have a difficult time reading new books. I can’t turn off my internal editor, which tends to focus on plot, theme, and composition. So when I’m trying to read for fun, I keep finding myself considering the question, ‘If I’d written this, would I be proud of myself?’. When I find that the answer is ‘no’, I tend to stop reading. And when I find something as detailed, complex, and well-done as this, I start raising my standards. My novel just got a little worse.

June was ‘Villain Month’. That seemed to go fairly well. I think I need a ‘World Building Month’ next, a concept that was mentioned a few weeks ago. I do want to finish this draft of my book first, but there are fifteen days of July left and roughly twenty thousand words to write. And I get anxious the closer I draw to the grand finale. That puts me at 1,333 words every day (including this one) until July. … On the bright side, it’s not as bad as NoNoWriMo.

Here are my goals, then:

  1. 1,333 words a day until the book is finished. I estimate that will let me finish the book before August.
  2. Finish ‘The Name of the Wind’.
  3. Write a book review.
  4. Possibly send girlish fan-letters to Patrick Rothfuss.
  5. Start the hype for ‘World Building Month’. Set it for August.

I’m imagining that World Building Month will be more useful to writers of speculative fiction than contemporary fiction. Even so, solidifying a good, living setting does deserve some attention. So, since Villain Month met with such approval, I’ll be doing the same thing. Anyone interested in signing up and joining in the event are welcome.

writing fantasy: the dilemma of familiarity

Recently, my mother found a book at a library sale with very rich writing. It was an older book, hardback, the red of the cloth cover faded and an unexciting title, the spine gently folded and indented with use. Contemporary marketing would sniff. And then my mother pointed out the first page. The prose felt rich and alive, taking a broad image of Italy and expounding on it with beautiful, subtle analogies to paint a vivid picture. I read enough to know that it was a particular strength of the writer in question.

I thought about the style and technique the author used, and after a time it pained me to realize that I can’t do the same, not easily, in fantasy. Robert Jordan might have, but then, Robert Jordan’s work could be used as bludgeoning weapons in the military if they ever ran short. Non-series fantasy writers have to contend with the fact that if they want to draw in a sense of such familiarity with their world, they’re going to have to sweat blood to weave it. One doesn’t write that the spell growled like a Harley motorcycle when using a historical setting.

I once heard it mentioned that fantasy was the easiest genre to write, because there were no rules, but that fantasy is also the hardest genre to write well. To take full advantage of the blank canvas, the author is stripped of many of their literary tools. The more original the setting and story, the less you have to work with.

I’ve found people who can do this well; Patrick Rothfuss (who is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors the more I go into his debut novel) has such an intricately built world that his novel feels like a bath, completely submerged. Rich prose, mature characters make up for the unfamiliarity. A gripping plot won’t let someone put the book down. Yet, it seems that worldbuilding aside, the process of creating familiarity from scratch is not a well covered topic.

A few things I’ve noticed about fantasy books that are exceptional (and I consider most of these inseparably linked to each other):

Maturity. People are people. As readers, we can accept mostly fleshed characters and improbable reactions to situations. But I think at some level, we know that it wouldn’t happen like that. The behavior of people around, the background and the appropriateness of their reaction to what happens around them are vital. We know if someone is pulling something contrived– it’s what bothered me in the otherwise enjoyable ‘Lies of Locke Lamora’. Convince me that your people are people, even if they’re bugs, aliens, or elves. I know all about people.

Repetition. Repeating themes, or elements in the story, bringing old settings back later in the story settles the reader down. It’s a familiar place, or a familiar situation, and since they’ve seen it before, they know what to expect. One bad fight in the dark, written well, with consequences, will set expectations up for another. Realize the effect repeating elements, themes, settings, and characters have, and use them.

Depth. Also known as world-building, character building, and just about every other sort of building that you can do for a story. Know everything– be able to write hundreds of pages on the culture, history, art, economy, geography, mythology, and religions you’ve invented. Show very little of that, and only when required by the story. This is about as easy as swallowing a ring of car keys, reaching down your own throat, and plucking them out again.

(See? Another analogy that wouldn’t work in a fantasy novel quite as well). And last…

Consistency. High king of fantasy, duke of literature, lord of all he beholds. Cross him, and your literary efforts will crumble to ash and salt in your hands. Do not break the rules that you lay down.

villain: redaechyl: rank and status

So I’ve been considering this week’s villain, and I’ve decided to bind Redaechyl in silver to the king. It gives him a more definite place in the courts, instead of just sitting around as a vague ‘king’s favorite’, and it explains why Kanichende allows him to remain despite his unpleasant personality. The wings remind the king of his romanticized dead sister, and (I’d imagine) he has enslaved all the city’s angelics (the proper nickname for the Mordache born with wings– it’s a rare trait).


A quick explanation on the Mordache’s slavery system:

The slave in iron. The common slave.
Men and women bound in iron are convicted criminals, usually murderers, thieves, rebels– anything serious that doesn’t warrant an immediate execution. They have no rights, and are usually worked to death.

The slave in bronze. The debtor.
Those wearing bronze bracers have sold themselves for something– money, services– or have fallen into a debt that they cannot repay. Often times the master of these slaves will set them to a profession to make them more useful. The maximum time a bronze slave may be imprisoned is twenty years, and they are the only slave with a time limit to their servitude. A bulk of the noblemen’s servants are actually bronze slaves. Anyone with wealth enough can take on a slave in bronze.

The slave in silver. The gentleman’s gentleman.
A slave in silver is considered to be more of a trusted servant, and is a high rank among slaves. Instead of selling themselves for money or physical possessions, swearing oneself to a master and taking on a silver bracer is a self-imposed vow of loyalty, akin to dedicating oneself for a great cause. A slave in silver commonly manages his master’s affairs (his master being a landed gentleman or of a higher rank), enforces his word and wishes, but ultimately is still a slave.

The slave in gold. The equal.
Only eldest-noblemen may have a slave in gold, and even the king can not have more than one. The slave in gold has given his life to his master, and it shows as the only rank that includes a name-change– the slave’s first name is followed by ‘du’, then the surname of the master (Rylan du Jadis, Sorche du Remerdii). A golden slave is seen as the ultimate disciple, the second-in-command and representative of his master in all things. They are brothers, lovers, devoted friends. The vows a golden slave take on are very near a vow of marriage, and they have been the source of some of the greatest love stories and betrayals that the Mordache have ever known.


No man in the Mordache cities may be legally enslaved unless he himself initiates the process, whether by an oath, a debt, or a crime. Most Mordache noblemen would never consider taking a golden slave, and will only give silver bracers. The king is of this mind.

A silver bracer marked with the king’s serpentine dragon allows Redaechyl the run of the palace, from the highest noblemen’s corridors to the pit, the whole of the university and the private rooms in the Arena. While some might halt a silver slave from certain activities, the king’s mark and Redaechyl’s wings give him the ability to literally get away with murder.