3 Things to Remember about Worldbuilding

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Most of us are fairly certain that we know what worldbuilding is. When we hear the term we think of fantasy and science fiction writers spinning up whole new worlds on the page. In reality, it doesn’t matter what you write. And that leads us to the first thing you need to remember about world building.

Worldbuilding Is for Everyone

Worldbuilding is all about creating a setting that feels real to the reader. Because of this, it doesn’t matter if you are writing fiction or nonfiction. If your setting is a medical lab in the 1920s, you want it to feel real. This means that you need to bring the sights, sounds, smells, and even the “feels” alive.

Use All the Senses

Bringing your setting alive is a matter of using sensory perception. Often, we rely on our sense of sight. So if the setting is a 1920 medical lab, you would describe the tables and microscopes and various gear. You might work in the smell of cleaner or the sound of someone closing a door. But for your setting to really sing, you need to, at least occasionally work in taste, how something feels, and even the sense of motion.

Those three are often the most difficult. But in this setting perhaps your character is chewing gum. That would bring in both the motion of chewing and the taste of the gum. Touch might involve the surface of a table or the sharp edge of a slide.

Make It Matter

The more research you do the more tempting it becomes to work it all into the story. Whether you are writing a contemporary mystery or a historical fiction romance, you should only use the setting details that matter to your story. If your story takes place in Pittsburgh, you don’t tell about the entire city. You tell about the city where your character happens to be. You also the note the specific details that would matter to your character.

A character who is indifferent to art is not going to describe the paintings on the walls unless one of those paintings is crooked and your character has OCD. Or perhaps the painting is a hunting scene and your character is an animal rights activist.

World building is something we all need to do when we right. The trick is in creating a balanced depiction that gives the reader a sense of place without slowing things down.


3 Things to Remember about Writing Historical Fiction

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Yesterday I watched the Kidlit Distancing Social with Lyn Miller-Lachmann on writing historical fiction. If this is a genre that you are considering writing for young readers, there are a number of things that you need to remember including these three.

More Recent than You Think

First things first, if you want to write historical fiction but don’t want to write about the distant past, you’re in luck. Books that fall into this category probably take place more recently than you think. As Miller-Lachmann pointed out, 9/11 is now considered historical fiction. This means that most of us could write about our childhood or teen years. This could include the moon landing, the Challenger explosion, or even 9/11.

Always Do Your Research

Even if you are writing about a time period that you lived through, you need to do your research. Part of the reason for this is that memory is a fickle thing. No two people remember the same event in the same way which makes eye witness testimony a low priority in a court of law.

But there may also be regional differences. I know my parents installed air conditioning in the mid 1970s. My grandparents, who lived in west Texas, which is much hotter than Missouri, didn’t have air conditioning. They had a swamp cooler. Yet, the homes in their town now have air conditioning although I have no idea when this transition took place.

Introduce Material Culture in Meaningful Ways

Last but not least, you have to introduce the details that you uncover in your research in meaningful ways. If I wrote a picture book set in 1970s west Texas, I probably wouldn’t include in the story that the home had a swamp cooler. What would be the point?

But the fact that the phone had a cord so my character could only go so far while trying to see if Mom’s car was in the driveway? That could work depending on the story.

Historical fiction doesn’t have to be set among the ancient Aztec . . . unless that’s the best time period for your story.


Expect the Unexpected: Floods, Frogs and Felines

I went to bed Monday night expecting a fairly calm day on Tuesday. The universe laughed.

Our area got hit by thunderstorms over night. I got up. I made my breakfast smoothie. Then I got on Facebook. Am I okay? Why wouldn’t I be okay? Depending on what estimate you use, we got anywhere from 6 to 11 inches of rain overnight. Six was the number from the US Geological Survey. The number from the airport was 10.

Our house is on high ground. Literally, there is one house between us and the top of the hill. But elsewhere in my small city, shopping centers are underwater. So are train platforms a few stops down the line. The fire department took a flat bed truck and john boats around various apartment complexes to rescue residents. They also asked us to stay at home and not to go out sight seeing. So home I stayed and tried to work.

I pushed myself to get some writing done, but it was really hard to focus. Not only was I distracted by all that dang water, there was the song and dance going on in my front garden.

One or more tree frogs took shelter on our porch. I tried to explain to the very noisy frogs that frogs like water. Fine, they said, we’re happy. So they croaked for hours. Out 15 pound cat took exception to these frogs and trotted from the front room to the bedroom, stopping by the office to gripe and complain.

And, believe me, this is not me complaining. I’ve seen photos of water pouring into ground floor apartments. We got off very lightly with only a trickle of water in our basement and noisy tree frogs.

Of course, now I find myself wondering what tomorrow will bring. Because it won’t just be frogs that all this water shifted. Sigh.

Hope you are all doing well and I will be back to my regularly scheduled programming (writing and books) tomorrow.


The Two Plots in a Cozy Mystery

I’m not working on my cozy at the moment. I take that back. I’m not revising it. I am reading cozies and thinking about how my book stacks up.


My mystery feels really episodic. There’s a murder and my character bumbles around, poking into other the lives of everyone she meets, and eventually collects enough clues to solve the mystery. It simply isn’t good enough to sell.

I think that part of the problem is that in a cozy mystery you essentially have two story lines. There is whatever is going on the character’s life before the murder takes place. The second story line involves solving the mystery. If you do it right, the first story line keeps rolling along even while your amateur detective tries to find the killer.

Here’s how that worked in Grounds for Murder by Tara Lush. Lana Lewis is the manager of Perkatory, the family café. Lana and her head barista are entered in a statewide barista competition. There have to be two team members from each café and Lana doesn’t know what she’s going to do when her barista quits and starts working for her chief competitor. Then he winds up dead. The competition is only a week away so Lana has to replace her barista and continue to prepare for the competition (the “real” life plot). Then she has to solve the mystery (the mystery plot).

I’d like to say that I do a great job with my character’s real life plot. But I didn’t. Instead, I floundered back and forth between that and the mystery. Fortunately, now I have the tools to solve this problem.

Last week I found Elizabeth S. Craig’s blog post, “Yet Another Use for Outlines.” Part of this post is a google document that she uses to outline her mystery plot. It includes two murder victims, the suspects for each death. She keeps track of where this person is interviewed, their alibi, the truth they tell, and the lie. It is all so systematic.

I’m going to use this form to re-outline my mystery. Then I am going to use the Save the Cat beat sheet to outline the real life plot and pull in this mystery outline. Finally I feel like I’ve got a workable solution!


Even an Evergreen Topic Must Be Unique

If you aren’t familiar with the term, evergreen topics are the ones that are always in demand. The include alphabet books, counting books, colors and shapes. The trick is finding a slant that is 100% unique.

Author Ellen Heck pulled this off in A is for Bee. She explained that she wanted to include animals that are normally featured in alphabet books — bees, rhinos, etc. But her goal was to include them in unexpected places. This was fairly easy to do because each animal is represented by its name in several languages starting with the same letter.

For example, “A is for bee, Anu in Igbo, Ari in Turkish, Aamoo in Ojibwe, and Abelha in Portuguese.” Readers can flip to the back of the book for a QRC code that will take you to speakers of the various languages giving perfect pronunciation.

Because there is no way that Heck could be an expert in each and every language sampled. And that wasn’t the only tricky thing in assembling these animal names. Heck wanted to include “parrot” but also wanted to include the Nahuatl word for parrot. But Nahuatl is from Mexico and Central America were there are many types of parrots and each one has a different name in Nahuatl. What to do? Hess included the name of a common parrot and explained the dilemma in the backmatter.

Hess found a niche that had not yet been served by an alphabet book. I do have to say that I had hilarious problems reading this aloud. “P is for plamingo . . . I mean flamingo.” “W is for wine-oceros . . . rhinoceros.”

So let’s say that you want to write a book about colors or numbers. How could you make your idea unique? What could you come up with that has never been done before? Find that unique idea and get to work. Unique is what the market demands.


Nontraditional Structures

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that the class I’m taking is studying nontraditional structures. The instructor challenged each of us to rework a portion of our story using one of these structures.

Hmm. Nontraditional structure number one was novels in verse. As much as I enjoy reading them, I can’t imagine writing one. I have sold all of one poem. I wrote it by accident while trying to write a rebus.

We also looked at pod-cast novels. My story is set something like 200 years in the future. They are having problems receiving any transmissions. Listening to pod casts seems like a stretch.

One of the oldest nontraditional forms is the epistolary novel. If you don’t recognize the term, this is a novel in letters. That didn’t immediately click because who would my character be writing to? As I noodled over the possibilities, I started thinking about various found items that she might discover throughout the story. That would make this a novel with graphic elements, not something my instructor asked us to consider. Nonetheless, yesterday I mocked up graffiti, a help wanted ad, and the poster you see above.

Between projects, I kept working my way through the reading for the class. As I read about epistolary novels I saw that the characters who write the letters are often female. Hmm. Check. They are often isolated. Check. They are separate from the dominant society. Check. The letters contain content they consider highly personal and wouldn’t want a stranger to access. They don’t have to be letters. They can be diary entries. If they are letters, they don’t have to be letters that were mailed.

This got my brain working and I shortly had ideas for two letters. I’m going to have to rework them to make them as unique as my character, but in these letters she can be unflinchingly honest, saying the things for which she knows her brothers would judge her. She can express the hurt and the fear that she’s experiencing through the story. At this point, I have two and they sound too alike. But I’ve got a few ideas on how to change that and, as long as I’m crafting unflinchingly honest letters, maybe she’s write the antagonist.

Regardless, my story won’t be epistolary. In an epistolary novel, the letters drive the story. The letters my main character writes are revealing, but there are other forces driving this story forward. Like Octavia Butler said, take a page out of what is wrong in your own society.


When There’s Too Much Information

Dealing with too much information can feel like juggling fire.

Last night, a webinar was ending when my husband slammed the front door. A notebook slipped off my bookshelf and smacked my camera light. That flipped into the air and hit the stack of books from my class. Those toppled and hit my keyboard. I felt like I was in a desk top cyclone! Fortunately I was just an observer and nothing was damaged.

I’ve been feeling like this in the narrative structure class that I’m taking. This week we are reading about novels in verse, epistolary novels, podcast novels, and creative nonfiction. And that’s just the material for this week!

When I signed up, I had to buy four books. I have an MA in history so four books for a six week class does not intimidate me. But I hadn’t counted on all of the articles and also how much of the information is new to me.

It is time to take a deep breath.

As I advise new writers, you are going to feel overwhelmed. The amount of information that is new to you is vast. And you aren’t going to be able to use, let alone juggle, it all at once.

So what do you do?

You let some of it slide. You can read it to see if there is anything that you are going to need, but if you don’t need it, let it go.

I’m not saying forget that you ever saw it. In this week’s lecture, Madeline Dyer talked about autofiction. If you don’t know the term, this is a form of fiction based on the life of the author. Some elements of the story will be autobiographical. Others will be purely fiction. It is a way of fictionalizing a story that the author is not willing to release into the world as pure nonfiction.

I get it. I really do. I’ve been noodling over a memoir knowing that if I was to write and sell this, there would be trouble. And this person provides enough flash and drama without adding to it. But if I was to fictionalize the story . . . that might work.

Not that I’m going to work on this right now. The story that I’m workshopping is Airstream, my middle grade science fiction. I don’t need to know how to write autofiction to proceed with this project so I’m setting that information aside. For now. It will be there when I need it.

When you are a new writer or you are writing in a new area, you may find yourself juggling more information than you can handle. When that happens, figure out which balls you can drop. Later on, when you need them, you can pick them up again.


Writing Nonfiction: Deciding What Is Main Text vs Sidebars and Back Matter

Just when you think you’ve about finished your nonfiction manuscript, you realize that it is too long. Or you don’t have enough sidebars. Or you’ve gone off on too many tangents. All of this and more can be solved with a careful use of back matter and sidebars. Let me explain how.

Start with a Simple Outline

The first think that you need to do is determine your slant. What is your manuscript about? A book about sea lions isn’t going to be able to include every sea lion fact known to mankind. So you are going to have to slant your topic, determining exactly what you are going to write about. Even a brief outline can help you keep track of what material goes into the body of your manuscript. The next step is to figure out what can go into the sidebars.


Sidebars expand on something mentioned in the main text.  They give you a bit more space to explain a concept that might be new to your reader. They are a good place to define previously unknown concepts. This is also a good place to bring up related material.

In my book on the Maya, one sidebar explained what jade is and why it is sacred. In Hidden Human Computers, sidebars include quotes from the women computers as well as tangential pieces like the poem “Whitey on the Moon.” In The Who, sidebars again included quotes but also information on the band’s creative process and non-music projects such as the graphic novel of Lifehouse by Pete Townsend.

Back Matter

In the books I do for Redline, the back matter must conform to series requirements.  They want each book to have the same format and similar types of information. 

In your own book, you can go a variety of directions.  This is the place to put information for the teacher or parent.  Tell the adult how to use the information within the book in their class.  You might also discuss how scientists discovered x, y, and z.  In a biography, it can be used to give a bit more information about the subject, perhaps information that will provide a more complete picture for the adult, but might not be appropriate for the young reader. 

Trying to tell what information goes where can seem random until you’ve put a few manuscripts together. Knowing where things below all begins with knowing what your particular book is about.


How and Why to Slant Your Work

Curious about how to slant your work? Read on.
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When I’m working with a new nonfiction writing student, one of the topics that we discuss is how they should slant their work. The reality is that whether you are writing nonfiction book for teens or a picture book, your book is going to have a slant.

Don’t panic. This isn’t the same type of slant was when we are talking about bias. This is the type of slant that you use to narrow your topic. Let me show you what I mean.

I am working on a series proposal about wildlife. My series is for the third grade reader and each book will be 4000 to 4500 words long. Each book will feature a different type of animal such as bald eagles and blue whales. The problem is that there is no way that I can fit everything that is known about either bald eagles or blue whales into a 4500 word book. That’s where slant comes into play because it is a way to narrow the topic.

Possibly slants include migration, animal babies, or coming back from extinction. Each of these things would narrow the topic. Here are three things to consider when slanting your work.

Is It Age Appropriate?

Sometimes your slant is going to depend on the age of your reader. Baby animals would work for preschoolers and younger grade school students, but not high school students. A book about conservation would work for high schoolers and even middle schoolers but not preschoolers if it includes using hunting as a means to reduce population.

Is It New?

If you are thinking about doing a series about wild animal babies, you might find that this has already been done. But a series about how young animals learn? That might be a topic that hasn’t been covered. Reslanting your idea can take you from something done to a possible market opening.

Is It Too Narrow?

When you try to come up with a slant, you have to be sure that you don’t come up with something too narrow. After all, if you narrow your topic too much, you might not be able to fill an entire book. That’s when your idea may become a magazine piece.

Slants are a great way to find space in an increasingly crowded market. Just make sure that your idea is age appropriate, hasn’t been done, and is broad enough that you can fill a book. If the answer is yes, get ready to write!


Preparing to Write a New Book? Read the Competition

You’ve got an idea for a new book. You’re eager to start writing, but there is something that you need to do early in the process. You need to check out the competition. I always tell my writing students to do this because it is the best way to know that there is room for your book in the market.

Recently, I’ve been working on a new picture book. Broadly, it is about pet adoption. When I first started playing around with my idea, I wasn’t sure what shape it would take. Because of this, I started writing before I did much research into the market.

As I wrote, I realized that the point-of-view character is the cat. He may start out as a cute, cuddly kitten but by the end of the book, he’s a bruiser. He isn’t tiny or cute. In fact, he’s a bit of a punk.

When I had a fairly solid draft, I decided I better do my market research. I checked out an impressive stack of picture books about cats. There are so many books about kittens finding homes. There are books about stray cat rescues.

As I read, I breathed a sigh of relief. None of the books duplicate my own idea. Most of them aren’t even close. Then I saw the cover of Mr. Wuffles, the nearly wordless picture book by David Wiesner. Oh, no.

But I’ve checked it out and although Mr. Wuffles does look an awful lot like the star of I am that Cat, the two stories are nothing alike. Phew. What a huge relief.

Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, a picture book or a young adult title, always check out the competition to make sure that there is space in the market for your idea. The earlier in the process that you do this research the better. Why? Because you’ll have time and energy to reslant your project.

Not sure how to reslant? Not to worry. I’ll write about that tomorrow.