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Worldbuilding with C.S.E. Cooney

Guest posts for the Ways into Worldbuilding series will appear most Wednesdays through early November. This week’s guest is C.S.E. Cooney.

C. S. E. Cooney ( is the author of the World Fantasy-nominated biopic collection Bone Swans: Stories (Mythic Delirium 2015). The Nebula Award-finalist title story appears in Paula Guran’s Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Novellas 2016.  She is the author of the Dark Breakersseries, Jack o’ the Hills, The Witch in the Almond Tree, and a poetry collection called How to Flirt in Faerieland and Other Wild Rhymes, which features her Rhysling Award-winning poem “The Sea King’s Second Bride.” Her short fiction and poetry can be found at Uncanny Magazine, Lakeside Circus, Black Gate, Papaveria Press, Strange Horizons, Apex, GigaNotoSaurus, Goblin Fruit, Clockwork Phoenix 3 & 5The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, Rich Horton’s Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy anthologies, and elsewhere.

Do you apply any sort of process to worldbuilding? How does a coherent world emerge in your work?

One way I’ve done it is to start with a character. Who is my protagonist? What is her home life like? Is it normal for the place and time she lives in? If not, how so? What sort of town or city does her home reside in? What is her town or city’s importance to her country? (Podunk? Capital?)

How was her country founded, and by whom? Who are its gods, its scientists, its wizards, its artists, its fighters? (What does my protagonist believe in? Is she traditional? Is she in for a rude awakening?) What language(s) do its citizens speak? What are the roots of this language (and therefore of this country)?

Who are this country’s heroes? (Of these, whom does my protagonist uphold or reject? How do their legends shape her?) Who are this country’s rulers? Are they competent? Elected? Designed? Inherited? (Is my protagonist an ally? A rebel? Indifferent to politics?) What is this country’s relationship to its neighbors? How does the political climate affect this country—and therefore its citizens—and therefore my protagonist? How does her world affect her? How does she affect her world?

Now, this is not necessarily the work of a single draft. I don’t sit there and ask myself all these questions, answer them in tidy summary, and THEN write the story. Possibly I ought to!

But it’s often more organic and chaotic than that. Usually, the world emerges more resplendently with every draft I write. As the protagonist acquires depths—and a rich inner landscape—so too does her out landscape become less of a sketch, more of a 3-D to-scale model. Their evolutions interlock. The process is unpredictable and organic. So much is written that can’t be used in-text, but it’s there, influencing the text.

Describe a milieu from one your works, and the aspects you found most rewarding. Which ones did readers comment on the most?

Another way I build a world is to start with a what-if.

Sometimes that what-if ends up as an interesting but empty world, which I set aside. It might twiddle its thumbs and hum tunelessly for years—until one day, a character swaggers along, her story in a sack upon her back, and says, “So, I’m homeless and up for any adventure. What have you got for me?”

This is how I made Bellisaar (of “Godmother Lizard” and “Life on the Sun”). It began with a what-if:

What if there was a desert, like the desert I grew up in (the Sonoran Desert, in the Southwest of the United States)—but what if it also like the mythical deserts I grew up reading about (specifically, in One Thousand and One Nights)? What if there were cacti and scorpions and rattlesnakes and dust storms, but also flying carpets, talismanic gems, and small deities who’ll readily interfere in your life?

What if, like the desert I grew up in, this desert has a history of oppression and broken treaties and bloodshed? What if there are also giants? And monsters that look like people? And bureaucrats who are monstrous?

And what if there are sunsets the like of which I’ve never seen since I moved to greener lands? And what if tears, like any waste of water in the desert, are considered at best rude and at worst criminal?

I wrote pages and pages of notes. But that was for the sake of the world itself. It had no plot; not a single soul populated it. Nothing ever happened there. Maybe a coyote ate a cactus wren from time to time.

So there it sat, vacant and lonely for years—until one story I’d tried to write several times in a sometimes contemporary, sometimes near-future Dystopian Earth-setting reared its head and said, “You know what? This ain’t working. Know what else? There’s this SWORD-AND-SORCERY magazine you could submit us to. If you just gave us a sword, and some sorcery, and maybe dumped us into a SECONDARY WORLD SETTING, we could really BE something! And you DO have that weird empty magic desert just sitting there, all dusty and sunshiny. Just sayin’.”

In a series, do you lay in mysteries, trusting that readers will be intrigued and look forward to learning the answer in later books? How do you feel about making the reader wait to learn important world features?

Oh, well, as far as novels go—I’m only just finishing the first book of a trilogy RIGHT NOW! It’s called Miscellaneous Stones: Necromancer, and yes, I have very happily laid the groundwork for Books 2 and 3!

What I figured was, Book 1 is sort of “getting to know you.” We meet the protagonist, enjoy and despair at her (fairly sheltered) worldview, watch it crack apart, and—hopefully—applaud when she starts her reluctant trudge toward a strange horizon.

In Book 2, I will aim my protagonist at countries she’s only ever read or heard about. She will walk new lands with her own feet, smell new spices, eat new foods, learn new languages. She will become a Woman of the World, so that by Book 3, her actions will help shape the world—and make new history.

And the world itself will, of course, emerge for us through her eyes. I shall have to establish what that world used to be, what it is now, what it could be—how it is endangered, fragile,  I anticipate an exciting, if excruciatingly slow, writing process!

In my Dark Breakers novellas (a trilogy in novellas, starting with “The Breaker Queen” and “The Two Paupers”), I strewed the ground with hints in Books 1 and 2 of what is to come. Each novella focuses on a new pair of characters, but all the characters are present from the get-go. There are also three worlds involved in the Dark Breakers’ uber-plot, and all three intersects in one house—Breaker House—modeled after The Breakers, a mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. The house is slightly different in each world: Day Breakers, Dark Breakers, and Breakers Beyond.

The city where the story takes place—Seafell—is modeled after fin-de-siècle Newport, but it’s also a fast-forward-on-the-timeline version of a city I’ve written about before, in my fairy tale “How the Milkmaid Struck a Bargain with the Crooked One” and a short story called “The Last Sophia.” So, apart from its Earthly inspiration, Seafell already has a history and myth of its own that sets it further apart from Newport, and deeper into its own niche.

Any peeks you’re willing to disclose about your next world or what we might learn about the milieu in your next story?

I recently wrote a short story called “Lily-White and the Thief of Lesser Night” for an anthology that draws its inspiration from Lewis Carroll’s “Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass.”  But I didn’t write in EITHER of these worlds; I invented a new one, so I didn’t have to play by Carroll’s rules.

It’s called THE WABE.

I stole that name right out of Carroll’s poem “The Jabberwocky,” and also from the ensuing discussion that Alice and Humpty-Dumpty have about the poem’s meaning—which is all nonsense of course.

“And ‘the wabe’ is the grass-plot round a sun-dial, I suppose?” said Alice, surprised at her own ingenuity.

 “Of course it is. It’s called ‘wabe,’ you know, because it goes a long way before it, and a long way behind it.”

0boneswansMy world—the Wabe—therefore, is a HUGE SUNDIAL! The villages are dotted all around the numbers. Each village a Lesser Night in addition to Greater Night. What time their Lesser Night falls depending on when the shadow of Mount Gnomon passes over them. The mountain—of course, is the time-keeper at the center of the Dial.

There’s a place called Cheshiretown, where all the Cheshire Bears and Cheshire Hyenas and Cheshire Pygmy Marmosets live. And there’s a Hetch at the bottom of the Dial, who regularly mows a new Motto into the grass—always in Latin, of course. It was hugely fun to write, and I love my two girl heroes—sisters, named Lily-White and Ruby-Red.

They, of course, will grow up to be the two great Queens of Carrollian Legend. But don’t tell them that! They’re too busy having adventures to listen anyway.

Bone Swans at


About this post. Ways into Worldbuilding is a series of interviews I conducted in the summer of 2016 with sf/f writers, asking about their opinion on, and approach to, creating fictional worlds. Watch this space for upcoming interviews with Django Wexler, Louise Marley, Sharon Shinn, and more amazing writers!

Previous interviews: L.E. Modesitt, Martha Wells, Kristine Katherine Rusch.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch on Worldbuilding

Rusch - FOR WEB-2465

Guest posts for Ways into Worldbuilding will appear most Wednesdays through early November. Today’s post is from one of our industry’s most versatile writers and editors, Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

International bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch writes under several names and in every genre she can think of. She’s won more awards for her fiction than she can count, and she also edits. Her latest editing projects are The Best Mystery and Crime Stories 2016, which she coedited with John Helfers, and The Women of Futures Past. Her next novel, The Falls, will appear in October. For more information on her work, go to or sign up for her newsletter.

Aside from reader expectations, why do you build worlds? Is it more of an obligation than a pleasure? If the latter, what is enjoyable or rewarding about this aspect?

I’m constantly thinking about other worlds, other times, and other cultures. A big part of my what-ifs (the source of my fiction) is: What if I was born in that country? Or in that time period? Or on the Moon in the future? What would it be like?

As a kid, I used to imagine myself into photographs—what does the air smell like? What does the ground feel like? I still have a coffee table book of photos that my parents owned. I used to stare at it all the time, imagining myself watching those people or being them.

It was great practice. I studied history to learn more about other times, and then I became a journalist to force myself out of my comfort zone. All of that informs my world-building. I can’t write a short story set in a made-up world without thinking about things that will never make it into the story.

Worldbuilding is kinda who I am.

How important is worldbuilding in your novels? Is it a goal for you to create an innovative world, or do you favor having the milieu sit more comfortably in the background?

Well, huh. The answer to the first part of the question seems very elementary to me. You can’t write about a place without knowing what it is, where it is, what it smells, tastes, feels, sounds, and looks like. That’s worldbuilding.

The second part of the question could have been in Greek, for all I understood it. Innovative? Background? The world is the world, just like our world is our world. I don’t try to make something different from other writers—that’s working out of critical brain, and that destroys fiction, in my opinion. I don’t try to make something unusual: that will just happen. Down the road from where I live, people live differently than I do. Their lives—with children, dogs, day jobs—are very different from mine. So that will seem unusual to me.

As for “comfortably in the background”? If the world is in the background, I’m not doing my job. Anyone who has been stuck in a snowstorm knows that the world is rarely background. So, I try to be very detailed, very hands-on, and very deep in the story.

Do you apply any sort of process to worldbuilding? How does a coherent world emerge in your work?

I wish I was one of those people who outlined everything ahead of time. I need to make copious notes as I go along, because I discover the world as my characters do. Often, I’ll write a novella or short story to explain to myself a part of the world I haven’t seen yet.

It’s complicated and disorganized, and somehow it works for me.

In a series, do you lay in mysteries, trusting that readers will be intrigued and look forward to learning the answer in later books? How do you feel about making the reader wait to learn important world features?

Kris’s secret of writing: I write for me.

I love mysteries and the unexplained. I’m willing to wait to find out information, so the readers are going to have to wait sometimes as well. I’ve got an entire science fiction series, set in the far-future Diving universe, that is just now beginning to answer the central mystery of the entire series, six books and several novellas in.

Those things keep me interested, and if I’m interested, I have to hope the readers will be too.

Any peeks you’re willing to disclose about your next world or what we might learn about your latest world in your next book?

Right now, I’m focusing on science fiction in the novel form, under the Rusch name. (I have several pen names.) So as I mentioned above, I’m working on a huge far-future universe that has ships and time travel and intergalactic mysteries. I’ve just finished two books in that universe, The Falls, which started out as a novella to explain something to myself, and turned into a full-blown novel in a sector base planet (something I hadn’t written about before), and The Runabout, which explores, literally, a gigantic spaceship graveyard. The Falls comes out in October, and The Runabout next spring.

But I also write historical mysteries as Kris Nelscott, and I just finished a huge project there, called A Gym of Her Own. Set in Berkeley in 1969, the book follows three women as they work to establish a gym for women. All the skills I use to build sf/f worlds, I use in the Nelscott books, because the past is gone, and I have to recreate it in full. That’s fun, and hard, and exciting to me.

As for my fantasy fiction, right now, I’m doing mostly short fantasy fiction, primarily for a series of anthologies called The Uncollected Anthology. Several other writers and I pick a topic, then write a fantasy short story based on that topic. My most recent, The Latest Madame Fortuna, just appeared in Fortune Tales. You can find it here:

Speaking of worldbuilding, that’s what’s slowing me down on returning to my Fey fantasy universe. I’ve written seven books in the Fey world, and need to return for a new trilogy, but I have to put that world back in my head completely before doing so. That’s a problem with 300,000 of worldbuilding materials (set aside from those books) and big fat fantasy novels to review.

Heart-Readers-ebook-cover-web-285-1But I’m doing it, albeit slowly. I’m really proud of those books, and they’re still available. If you’re interested, start with The Sacrifice and work from there.

Or if you want to get one of my other fantasy novels relatively inexpensively, I’m in a storybundle with several other authors. The Epic Fantasy Bundle ( contains my novel, Heart Readers.

As you can see, I’m really busy with all kinds of projects. I haven’t even mentioned the worldbuilding in my Kristine Grayson paranormal romance and YA novels (which are going to branch toward mysteries soon), and the three witchy sisters who are magical dramaturges, whom I plan to write more about, and, and, and…

Oh, but one more thing! If you want to see just how eclectic I am, come to every Monday to read a free short story. Sometimes the story is fantasy, sometimes it’s sf, sometimes it’s mystery…it varies from week to week, like my work does.

Thanks for reading! And Kay, thanks for asking me onto the blog.


About this post. Ways into Worldbuilding is a series of interviews I conducted in the summer of 2016 with SFF writers, asking about their opinion on, and approach to, creating fictional worlds. Watch this space for upcoming interviews with Sharon Shinn, Django Wexler, Louise Marley, Tananarive Due and more amazing writers!

Previous interviews: Martha Wells, L. E. Modesitt, Jr

Next interview: Claire Cooney, September 28

Starting a novel: Granite or fun house?

Today’s post: the mental state of being at the front-end of the novel. I love the start of novels. It may be the only time I can say I am unabashedly happy as a writer. Other times I may be confidant, poised, satisfied, or happily resigned. But there is only one sequence when I am in love: At the beginning.

Other authors do not love beginnings. Mary Higgins Clark has said:

“The first four months of writing a book, my mental image is scratching with my hands through granite.”

In contrast to this–quite common, I believe–writing experience is mine:

Springtime at Giverny - Monet

Springtime at Giverny – Monet

“The first hundred pages or so, my mental attitude is that of being lost in a fun house–no, not lost, more staggering from one wonder to another”

Once I have a general plot and I know my novel’s theme and major characters, it’s as though a door opens, and here is a world that was always present, people who have always existed, and a truth I’ve been waiting to tell. It’s the miracle of fiction writing, that the mind weaves lies which become the truest thing we know.

The first hundred pages can be tad exasperating, it’s true. There are many side paths which look germane, but which really are other books. Not this book. One might take a few steps in, and then realize, no, that’s not my story. So beginnings are largely about choices. We must choose from an embarrassment of riches. We must not gorge, indulge or be swept away by possibilities. Well, perhaps some of this on the first draft. But we know in our hearts that we must later, cut, cut, cut.

The first hundred or hundred and fifty pages are a time of intense creative fire and at times, joy. I know that I’m being shown a tremendous story, and that inevitably, I will get only some of it right. But nothing in my life quite matches the pleasure of getting to try, and watching the book come to life on the page.

And after?

Oh, that is another story. There will be granite and a small portion of boredom… Another post!


Ways into Worldbuilding interview series: Stand by for next Wednesday’s interview with Kristine Kathryn Rusch!

Worldbuilding with Martha Wells

Guest posts for the Ways into Worldbuilding series will appear most Wednesdays through early November. Today I welcome one of my favorite authors to the site: Martha Wells.MarthaWells_byIgorKraguljacsmall

Martha Wells has written many fantasy novels, including the Books of the Raksura series (beginning with The Cloud Roads), the Ile-Rien series (including the nebula-nominated The Death of the Necromancer) as well as YA fantasies, short stories, media tie-ins, and nonfiction.

Aside from reader expectations, why do you build worlds? Is it more of an obligation than a pleasure? If the latter, what is enjoyable or rewarding about this aspect?

I enjoy it, and it’s one of my favorite parts of developing a story.  I like coming up with the details, and exploring how the world has affected my characters, and how it can determine the direction and feel of the story.  I find it rewarding to come up with something that feels true and consistent no matter how fantastic or far out it is.

How important is worldbuilding in your stories? Is it a goal for you to create an innovative world, or do you favor having the milieu sit more comfortably in the background?

I find it pretty important, and I try to make as much use of it in my fantasy as possible, since it’s something I enjoy a lot in the books and stories I read.  I try to use it to shape the story and develop the characters.

I like to try to create an innovative world, but I also feel it should be fairly transparent to the reader.  Getting across what is unique and interesting in your world without weighing down the pacing or plot is important to me, and it’s something that I think takes a lot of experience and practice, and reading other authors who do it really well. Read More…

Worldbuilding with L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

Guest posts for the Ways into Worldbuilding series will appear most Wednesdays through early November. We lead off with L. E. Modesitt, Jr. Lee-pic3B (1)

L. E. Modesitt, Jr. is the author of more than 70 science fiction and fantasy novels, a number of short stories and technical and economic articles. His novels have been translated into German, Polish, Dutch, Czech, Russian, Bulgarian, French, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, and Swedish. He has been a U.S. Navy pilot; a market research analyst; a real estate agent; director of research for a political campaign; legislative assistant and staff director for U.S. Congressmen;  Director of Legislation and Congressional Relations for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; a consultant on environmental, regulatory, and communications issues.  His first story was published in Analog in 1973, and his latest books are Solar Express [Tor, November 2015] and the forthcoming Treachery’s Tools [Tor, October 2016].

Aside from expectations, why do you build worlds? Is it more an obligation than a pleasure? If the latter, what is enjoyable or rewarding about this aspect?

I build worlds because (1) I can’t conceive of having a meaningful story without it being set in a consistent and multifaceted world; (2) setting up and deepening the world enriches the story, both for me and for the reader; and (3) it just feels right.  The entire process is rewarding because the details bring a richness and an “aliveness” to the world, at least for me. Read More…