So, at the moment I’ve just started to do some work on a new project (don’t worry, I’m not abandoning anything else I’m working on at the moment – I’m just setting up the pieces so that when I’m ready to pick it up, it’s ready to go immediately. I’m not giving anything away just yet and I’ll be giving it a proper announcement in due course, but I’ll use it as a kicking-off point here), and that, for me, means starting at the worldbuilding stage.
This is probably going to be a pretty short post because I really don’t have a lot to discuss, but I wanted to get something out on the page so I can go back to work (and thence, to sleep, because it’s pretty late where I am right now and I’ve been awake for a … fair while now).
This new project is designed so I can test a few skills and flex a few muscles that I really haven’t had to flex before. I’m a character writer, fundamentally, and someone who deals a lot more in interpersonal drama than exact verisimilitude (if that hasn’t become obvious already). Generally, I’d prefer that a world feel true to the tone of the story than try to make something that is 100% accurate to either real-world history or a secondary world that acts on real world principles. It’s a complicated balance – obviously I do believe there is such a thing as breaking suspension of disbelief, and I do a lot of worldbuilding and background before I start to write most things, but often I do fall down in that I will tend to gloss over setting details if they’re getting in the way of character details, rather than trying to find a way to make them work together.
Well, the next project, for various reasons, isn’t going to be one where that’s going to fly. I’m playing with a different format, and I’m also forcing myself to write in a way where the setting is far more important to the story than it ever has been before.
And that’s kind of scaring me, because while I like to think I’ve gotten a pretty good general knowledge of a range of topics over the years, at least enough to know when I don’t know something and need to look further into it, I’m by no means an expert in everything.
My degree was in Literature and Linguistics, and my work since then has been in everything from history to accounting to economics and policy to academic science (let me tell you – proofreading a paper on quantum mechanics for someone who wanted to test how it would read to a layman and make sure that all the spelling and grammar was correct was both incredibly enlightening and horrifically confusing), to basically the entire gamut of speculative and genre fiction. I’ve worked freelance, reception, transcription, office work, a little retail – there is no part of my experience that has lent it to an actual deep understanding of any one topic in a professional sense of the world. I can’t even hold a candle to the people who spend a lot of free time looking into a particular topic, like the friend I have who has been an excellent resource in the past on WWI and WWII history just because he has always found those topics kinda cool. I’m a generalist at heart and by nature, which is good in some ways, but it does mean that I will go into every new project limited in the base of raw factual knowledge that I can bring into the project.
What that, therefore, means is that I will never have the raw knowledge base of someone, perhaps a hard sci-fi author, choose your own example as you wish, who has taken a degree (often even a PhD) in a particular field and used it to create fiction that speculates on the theme of what can be done with that research in the future. I’m probably not even going to have the knowledge of someone who had a technical skill, like a doctor who went on to write, say, a military space opera, or a story about a group of early frontier settlers or space colonisers who encounter medical dangers as part of the plot. I don’t have the deep knowledge of fairy tales that someone who has spent a long time studying or reading them will have, so I could produce a pretty fair facsimile, but nothing compared to what someone with real knowledge in the genre could do with a reconstruction or retelling.
That doesn’t mean I can’t do research at all, or that research will be futile, of course. But trying to pack 20-plus years of experience and interest into the … what, six, twelve? … months that I generally have in between starting to seriously develop an idea and actually needing to put fingers to keyboard on the first scene.
And given the amount of projects I have on the back burners at the moment and my plans for the next little while? I sincerely doubt that that six to twelve month figure is going to get longer any time soon.
(I’ve also been diving into video game theory a bit lately so I’ve actually started considering my time worldbuilding as a kind of pre-production phase, which has created some interesting new angles on things, even though it hasn’t fundamentally changed the actual tasks involved).
So my problem to solve then becomes this: If I have only enough time to get moderately familiar with any given topic, how do I translate “moderately familiar” into an amount of detail in the story that gives the impression that I know what I’m talking about while not throwing anyone actually knowledgeable about the topic out of the story.
(We’re discarding the first obvious option here, which is finishing it and giving it to someone who knows what they’re talking about and getting them to rip it apart for you – that absolutely works, and is very valuable, but the goal here is to front-load my process so that I need to do the least possible work later. If I do a half-job now, the danger is that my topic expert will tell me “start over” rather than “good base, but change these details”)
(Also this is exclusively talking about things where you’re looking for factual knowledge – the process for researching experiences for the purpose of including diversity is a lot more involved. A lot of this might transfer, but there are some big fundamental differences, and this is not the blog post to go into that. We’re just sticking to the “what do I know about the theoretical limits of this type of starship warp drive” or “how did economic policy work in this type of society in history” kinda stuff for now)
There was a throwaway line in something I was listening to about the broad strokes being important, but the detail is, too. And it got me to thinking.
Broad strokes are important. If I want something historically accurate, it’s very important that I don’t include, say, a train in a society that’s modelled after the Classical period, or a handheld mobile phone in one modelled after the 1950s. That’s also important even if the concepts are only roughly modelled – a lot of the work I did for The Ferryman’s Apprentice, for example, was making sure to keep these broad strokes (like whether there would be ice cream in this society, or that afternoon I spent valiantly trying to find out exactly what year taxi services became common and affordable) pretty accurate to the Australian 1940s, so that I could have the right backdrop for the fantasy stuff going on in the foreground.
But the details are also important. Details are what make things feel ‘off’. Details are the tricky things, like people not using words that might have been common at the time, but that are still so commonly used today that they sound modern and anachronistic even when they aren’t. Details are things like the kind of cloth that a particular person wears in a particular society, or the types of foods available (which implies either a certain climate or a certain level of trade). It’s all the things that make it look like you really dug down and did your research, and look like you really put thought and effort into getting even the smallest details right.
But obviously, something has to give – I can’t do enough work to get every single detail exactly right all the time. And some broad strokes I’ll have to change because I’m not writing historical fiction, I’m writing a novel.
So that’s my next juggling act. Where do I cut details so that the broad strokes still feel cohesive even though there are a few of them replaced with total fiction, and so that the fine details are there enough that the reader feels like the world still ‘makes sense’.
… actually I think that’s another blog post I just rabbit-holed myself into. What is it about fine detail and how you use it that improves a story rather than holding you to something that doesn’t work for the plot, or bogs you down too much in trying to provide ‘verisimilitude’?
Anyway, as always, comments and input welcome. I’m just musing onto a page here, so feel free to muse back.