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Worldbuilding with Tananarive Due

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Photo by Daniel Ebon

For our concluding interview in my Ways into Worldbuilding series, I am honored to welcome a distinguished voice in fantasy and science fiction, Tananarive Due.

Tananarive Due is an author, screenwriter and educator who is a leading voice in black speculative fiction. Her short fiction has appeared in best-of-the-year anthologies of science fiction and fantasy. She is the former Distinguished Visiting Lecturer at Spelman College (2012-2014) and teaches Afrofuturism and creative writing at UCLA. She also teaches in the creative writing MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. The American Book Award winner and NAACP Image Award recipient is the author of twelve novels and a civil rights memoir. In 2010, she was inducted into the Medill School of Journalism’s Hall of Achievement at Northwestern University. She also received a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. Her first short story collection, Ghost Summer, published in 2015, won a British Fantasy Award.

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?

All storytelling, to me, is worldbuilding–even if it’s our mundane world, we have to create the specific world of that character. But in terms of broader worldbuilding in my speculative fiction, since scope is not my natural strength, I am very character-focused i.e. what world would create this person? Or what interactions with the world would tell the best story for this character? I’m thinking specifically of my African Immortals series, where I was pulled out of my comfort zone in each book to expand the world for my characters. This also has bearing on my post-apocolyptic stories “Herd Immunity” and “Carriers.”

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?

Yes, the BACKGROUND is where I’m most comfortable. When I write science fiction, especially, it’s just enough seasoning of futurism to be credible so I can tell my story–and often near-future at that.

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

I write about human characters, to my first steps are built on my understanding of sociology and psychology in OUR world. “Wherever we go, there we are.” So any world I create cannot go counter to human nature. So if it’s a world with a specific kind of magic or technology, I start with asking myself why people would build this world or how they would use it.

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

My African Immortals series is probably my most popular “world”–a sect of immortal Africans in an underground colony in Lalibela, Ethiopia. Their world involves advanced technology, telepathy, and healing blood (magic).

What kind of worldbuilding tropes are you tired of? Please share a couple of worlds that have especially impressed you.

I have seen changes in this trend, but I’m tired of worldbuilding that is exclusionary, i.e. the original Star Wars, which neglected to show a multiracial universe. Too often, aliens stand in for minority groups–and there’s no need for that, when actual black and brown people can also appear. I admire the worldbuilding in Octavia Butler, where she veers between aliens, dystopian futures and vampires to show the dangers of hierarchy and power dynamics. Her books are also always multiracial.

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?

In my case, if a world feature pops up in Book 2 or Book 3, it’s only because I didn’t think of it earlier. **smile** But in all seriousness, sometimes I respond to questions from primary readers (like my husband, Steven Barnes) to account for features of the world that don’t quite seem consistent with human psychology, etc. If he asks, “But why are the immortals–who are mostly men–so docile in their colony?” I have to explain that later.

Do you consciously work against reader expectations for a milieu? If so, please give an example of a surprise you brought in to a familiar setting, and how successful you think it was.ghost-summer-final

I do like an almost-like-our-world in my storytelling approach, i.e. everything is like our world except this ONE small difference (though, depending on the difference, that can be hard to pull off). I don’t know how well it succeeds, but in my short story “Vanishings” I wanted to explore a world where death means the literal vanishing of the body, and “paleness” in illness means you’re literally fading away. So my story explores a family’s confusion and denial when the father never came home–is he dead, or did he run away? And how that confusion enables denial.

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

My novel-in-progress is set in the fictitious town I explore in my short story collection, Ghost Summer, where magic exists and has a special impact on children.

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About this series. Ways into Worldbuilding is a series of interviews I conducted in the summer and fall of 2016 with sf/f writers, asking about their opinions on, and approach to, creating fictional worlds, especially fantasy worlds.

Previous interviews:

L.E. Modesitt

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Martha Wells

C.S.E. Cooney

Louise Marley

Django Wexler

Sharon Shinn

World Fantasy Award Winners

The winners of the 2016 World Fantasy Awards:

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT

David G. Hartwell

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Andrzej Sapkowski

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NOVELS

* Anna Smaill, The Chimes (Sceptre)

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LONG FICTION

* Kelly Barnhill, The Unlicensed Magician (PS Publishing)

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SHORT FICTION
* Alyssa Wong, “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers,” (Nightmare magazine, Oct. 2015)

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ANTHOLOGY
* Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles, eds., She Walks in Shadows (Innsmouth Free Press)

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moreno-garcia

Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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Paula R. Stiles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

COLLECTION
* C. S. E. Cooney, Bone Swans (Mythic Delirium Books)

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ARTIST

* Galen Dara

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SPECIAL AWARD – PROFESSIONAL

* Stephen Jones, for The Art of Horror (Applause Theatre Book Publishers)

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SPECIAL AWARD – NONPROFESSIONAL

* John O’Neill, for Black Gate: Adventures in Fantasy Literature

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Richly deserved congratulations to all!

Worldbuilding with Sharon Shinn

sharon-shinn-color-pic This is the next to last guest post for the Ways into Worldbuilding series. I am especially pleased this week to welcome a true master of fantasy, Sharon Shinn.

Sharon Shinn has published 26 novels, one collection, and assorted pieces of short fiction since her first book came out in 1995. Among her books are the Twelve Houses series (Mystic and Rider and its sequels), the Samaria series (Archangel and its sequels), the Shifting Circle series, and the Elemental Blessings series. She lives in St. Louis, loves the Cardinals, watches as many movies as she possibly can, and still mourns the cancellation of “Firefly.” Visit her website at or see her on Facebook at sharonshinnbooks.

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?

Hmmmm. I think I do it because worldbuilding is as much a critical aspect of what I write as a dead body is to a mystery. To make my stories as rich, as tactile, as complete as I want them to be requires coming up with details that illuminate the characters’ lives and placing them in settings that feel real. If I were writing historical fiction, I think I’d try to be just as detailed—because, again, I’d want readers to have a sense of being in a very specific place and time. I don’t know that I’d call this an obligation—it’s just part of the compact between the author and the reader.

I don’t know that I’d call it a pleasure, either. There are times I groan out loud when I think, “Oh no! I have to describe another room! Another outfit! Another meal!” But I’m awfully pleased with myself when I come up with a custom or a detail that I think is particularly cool.

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?

It’s important, but it’s no more important than creating memorable characters. Actually, I would say I generally want the world to support the plot; I don’t want it to drive the plot.

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

I usually start out with a couple of elements that are other. That are fantastical and set the tone for the world I’m creating. Then, as I’m writing the book, I add details to reinforce those elements. (So I’ve got angels. What kinds of clothes do they wear? Do they have to sit in special chairs that accommodate their wings? Can they swim?) As my story progresses, I sometimes have to add new elements to fit the plot, or change elements I thought were in place. Thus, it’s a very organic process, and the world tends to grow more vivid and complex as the first draft goes along. Then of course I have to go back to the beginning and harmonize all the details.

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

Readers have seemed to really respond to the ritual of the blessings in the Elemental Blessings books (Troubled Waters, Royal Airs, Jeweled Fire). (Is this where I mention that you came up with the title for Royal Airs?) In these books, everyone is affiliated with one of the elements of air, earth, water, fire, or wood. The numbers three, five, and eight are considered propitious. There are eight blessings associated with each of the five elements, as well as three extraordinary blessings. When newborns are five hours old, their parents go to a temple and ask three strangers to pull blessings for their children, and these follow them for the rest of their lives. But people also can go to a temple at any point and draw blessings to provide guidance for that day, or for a current enterprise.

I had my webmaster create artwork for the 43 blessings and there’s a printable version posted at http://www.sharonshinn.net/troubledwaters/. I’ve started pulling three blessings every Monday morning and posting them on my Facebook page. Readers will pull their own blessings and let me know what they’ve gotten. A few readers have made their own sets of blessings by painting them on acrylic buttons, for instance. It’s been a lot of fun.

What kind of worldbuilding tropes are you tired of? Please share a couple of worlds that have especially impressed you. (Please take Kenyon novels out of the running on this one.)

I love Martha Wells’ Raksura books, which are filled with many races, none of them human, all of them complex and fascinating. Actually, generally speaking, I think she’s one of the best worldbuilders around.

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?

I did that in minor ways in the Twelve Houses books, because I planned them as a series and I had a pretty good idea of my overarching storyline. Most of the rest of the novels that ended up being Book One of a series were not intended as series, so I didn’t have the opportunity to do so! But I actually think it’s a great strategy. Not only does it give readers reasons to go on to the next book, I think it gives them a little thrill when they reread. “Oh, I missed this before, but here’s where she first mentioned the necklace!”

That being said, I’m also generally opposed to cliffhangers in books. I want the ones I read to be complete, so the ones I write tend to be complete. Even if there’s an unsolved mystery, I don’t like it to interfere with the reader’s satisfaction with this one particular story. So I wouldn’t mind making the reader wait to learn important world features as long as the heroine’s life wasn’t at stake in the final pages because those features hadn’t been revealed.

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

The fourth book in the Elemental Blessings series, Unquiet Land, has just come out. The heroine is affiliated with the element of earth, which seems pretty staid until you think about earthquakes, for instance.

I also have a graphic novel, Shattered Warrior, coming out in May. It takes place on a secondary world about ten years after it’s been invaded by members of an alien race, who are still on-planet. So there was a lot of worldbuilding in terms of city ruins and superimposed alien technology. I wrote out the descriptions, but the artist, Molly Ostertag, did an amazing job of bringing the world to life.

Finally, I’m working on a story I hope to turn into my next series—but since it’s still in the very early stages, I don’t think I want to describe it yet! But just as a hint, my keyword for the series is “echo.” It has been as much fun to write as anything I’ve ever done.

In what sense do you mean keyword?

Whenever I’m writing a book, before I have the title, I save my files under some word or phrase that seems apt. When I was writing Archangel, for instance, my keyword was “Gabriel.” One of the later Samaria books had “angel” as its keyword. For the current book, it’s “echo.”

The disorienting side effect to this system is that my mind often associates the keyword with a song, which is then rumbling around in my head for however many months it takes me to write the book. So, while I was writing Archangel, the Christmas song “The Angel Gabriel” followed me around for weeks. Sadly, the only song I know that includes the word “echo” is the Partridge Family’s “Echo Valley 2-6809,” so I’ve been singing that since January. It’s almost enough to make me want to rewrite the book.

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About this series. Ways into Worldbuilding is a series of interviews I conducted in the summer and fall of 2016 with sf/f writers, asking about their opinions on, and approach to, creating fictional worlds, especially fantasy worlds.

Previous interviews:

L.E. Modesitt

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Martha Wells

C.S.E. Cooney

Louise Marley

Django Wexler

 

World Fantasy Con: My schedule

Excited to be leaving for World Fantasy Convention on Thursday! The programming line-up looks especially interesting. After judging the World Fantasy Awards this year, I’m looking forward to the panels on differing types of fantasy and the diverse opportunities they give us as readers and writers.

My schedule:

FRIDAY

12:00 – Panel – UNION AB

Trilogies? Small Stuff! The challenges and triumphs of writing a long, multi-volume series. What should someone starting a long series know at the outset? Lee Modesitt, David Drake, David Coe (m), Sharon Shinn, Mercedes Lackey and me.

SATURDAY

2:30 – Reading – UNION C

I’ll read from my upcoming release from Saga Press: At the Table of Wolves, book 1 of a paranormal espionage series set in the thirties in England and Europe.

SUNDAY

3:30 – Judges panel – UNION AB

Check out the full programming here.

Some of the authors who’ll be there:

Port Townsend Photographer

Louise Marley

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Lee Modesitt

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Sharon Shinn

C.S.E. Cooney

C.S.E. Cooney

Worldbuilding with Django Wexler

Guest posts for the Ways into Worldbuilding series will appear on two more Wednesdays. This latest interview is Version 2from fantasy author Django Wexler.

Django Wexler graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research.  Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books.  When not writing, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts.

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?

For me, worldbuilding is a pleasure, indeed sometimes a guilty pleasure.  I often end up worldbuilding way more than finally makes it into the book, and have to reluctantly prune out paragraphs of exposition that illuminate world details but serve no story purpose.

I think I like it because I have a deep interest in history, economics, military theory, and all the various things that go into worldbuilding.  I read a lot of non-fiction, both for research and just for fun.  So getting to do the worldbuilding on a new project is both a kind of puzzle — fitting pieces from different times or places together — and an opportunity to show off some of the cool stuff I’ve found.  Whatever it is, I love doing it!

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?

There are definitely many approaches to worldbuilding, but for me, the most important thing is that the world support the story you’re trying to tell.  The wonderful thing about fantasy is that because you get to tinker with the world design, you get to build a custom stage to show off the story and characters.  That doesn’t mean making things too convenient for them, of course, and you need logic and self-consistency.  But it means you can focus on the elements that are important by leaving other stuff out of the world.

For example, when I was first brainstorming the book that would become The Thousand Names, I knew I wanted it to be a military fantasy set at an 1800s level of technology, with an emphasis on realistic battles and tactics.  While I wanted it to be a fantasy, knowing that I wanted to emulate real-life military situations helped me figure out the magic system.  Magic couldn’t be too powerful, flashy, or common — battle-mages like those of Steven Erikson or Robert Jordan would completely change the nature of war.  (As they in fact do in those series!)  So magic in The Shadow Campaigns is rare, subtle, and personal; you can use it to fight ten soldiers, but not a hundred or a thousand.

Similarly, in The Forbidden Library, I knew I wanted magic to deal with the written word, with magic books and writing playing a big role.  As a result, I decided to set the story in the 1930s, before technology like photocopiers and digital displays would have opened up a whole set of new questions.

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

It’s not a particularly coherent process, I must admit.  First I think about the general kind of story I want to tell, and what implications that might have.  Often I have something in mind as a historical parallel, or a combination of several things, so I think about how that’s going to fit and what parts of it might be changed.  I try to get a handle on how magic or other differences from the real world are going to work, even if the characters don’t really understand it.

If a map is going to be important, I sketch it out at a very vague level, then drill down to a more detailed version in the places where the story actually visits.  The need for this varies — I love maps, but they’re way more important in a military story like The Shadow Campaigns then in an urban fantasy story, say.  Rather than total scientific accuracy in terrain, etc, I strive for a map that basically looks like maps of the real world at a glance.

Once I know who my characters are, I think about their societies and what we need to know about them.  It’s easy to get carried away here and try to nail down every last detail, but for the most part you can figure out the general flavor and then make things up as you go along, not forgetting to take notes for consistency.  But you’re going to need to know some large-scale stuff about social classes, gender roles, religions, languages, etc.  Figure out some good swear-words, you can tell a lot about a culture by how they blaspheme.

Also, all of this is flexible!  I try not to get too attached to anything until I have a detailed outline of the story.  Places in particular may need to move — it’s better to redraw the map first then try to fudge later, people will notice.

What kind of worldbuilding tropes are you tired of? Please share a couple of worlds that have especially impressed you. (Please take Kenyon novels out of the running on this one.)

A lot of people complain about stale tropes, like the Tolkien races, vampires, etc.  But I think any trope can be used well, and there’s no point in being different just to be different.  If you call your elves “bworfs” but don’t change anything else, it’s still just as bad.

What I am tired of, though, is what I think of as “package deals”.  This is when the essential aspects of some trope get tied up with cosmetic or inessential aspects, and the whole thing gets dropped into a world willy-nilly, without the author thinking about it very much.  With vampires, for example, you might say the essential aspect is that they’re risen dead creatures that drink blood.  (Or something else!  That’s okay.)  But then when you put them into your story, you import all this baggage — fangs, can’t go out during the day, garlic, crosses, running water, etc.  No matter how many minor twists you then add (“My vampires hate ginger instead of garlic!”) you’ve still got a hunk of someone else’s worldbuilding, inelegantly grafted onto your own.  Dwarves are another good example — underground race that crafts things, sure, but do they have to be short, bearded, axe-wielding Scotsmen?

Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence is a wonderful example of doing these things right.  He uses some pretty well-worn tropes — gargoyles, vampires, etc — but he takes the basic essence and then recasts it in light of his world and magic system, so the result feels fully integrated and part of the world.  Charles Stross’ Laundry Files does a similar job integrating vampires, superheroes, and many more common myths into his unique framework.

On the other hand, you can just go wild with invention!  China Mieville’s Bas-Lag books are a wonderful example of the weirdness you can throw together by not including standard-issue fantasy tropes.

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?

I like to keep some mysteries, but I think it’s important not to cheat the readers.  Basically, if our point-of-view character knows something important, you shouldn’t keep it from the reader for very long unless you’re otherwise using an unreliable narrator.  If the characters and the readers are learning the deep nature of the universe together, that’s fun.  If the characters already know, but just aren’t telling so that you can spring a sudden twist on the reader, that’s a cheap gimmick.  (This is sometimes called “The Jar of Tang“.

Do you consciously work against reader expectations for a milieu? If the-forbidden-library-wexlerso, please give an example of a surprise you brought in to a familiar setting, and how successful you think it was.

I do this a lot in The Forbidden Library.  There’s a ton of creatures in those books, both familiar and completely invented, but I made a rule for myself that I wouldn’t use anything from mythology purely as-is.  So there’s a fairy, for example, but he’s got the coloring and nasty temperament of a wasp; elves with needles for hair; and cute little kiwi birds that gather into a terrifying swarm.  The dragon has eight legs and six eyes.  Just little things, but it helps give the setting an alien feel instead of a familiar one.

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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 opinions on, and approach to, creating fictional worlds. Watch this space for upcoming interviews with Tananarive Due and Sharon Shinn!

Previous interviews. L.E. Modesitt, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Martha Wells, C.S.E. Cooney and Louise Marley.