Worldbuilding and the Orc Sworn Series

It takes a huge amount of imagination to envision a setting utterly different from our own, and a huge amount of talent to convey this world in detail after detail. Finley Fenn has both in spades.

Following on my reblog of Louise Hallett’s post on the mind-expanding qualities of speculative fiction yesterday, I thought this would be a good time to talk about world building. This is also going to be a fan-girl post. I’ve been reading Finley Fenn’s “Orc Sworn” series for over a year. The series is going from strength to strength: increasingly complex characters and relationships, higher stakes in the battle between the venal humans and the Orcs. The series is extremely steamy and that’s what gets a lot of focus in reviews and reader discussions.

But I want to talk about Fenn’s amazing world building.

What is world building and why is it important in speculative fiction?

World building is the creation of a cohesive setting for the story. I’ve talked about world building before and the importance of doing research, much of which never ends up anywhere near the page, to inform the narrative. But in this post, I want to talk about cohesiveness. Where an author is asking a reader to believe in things outside the normal frame–be it magic or faster-than-light travel or brutally hot but surprisingly caring Orcs–if the setting doesn’t hang together, the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief is ruptured and the pleasure of reading the story can be lost. All the pieces have to fit, or the whole structure falls apart.

Without wishing to ding masters like Herbert and Asimov, the old “trick” for creating a cohesive, but otherworldly, setting was a rather clunky framing method. Either with a long prologue to the story, or huge chunks of exposition in the first few chapters about what makes this setting different from our daily reality, the author dumps an alternative history on the reader. This alternate history can make enjoyable reading on its own (folks who love Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion,” I’m looking at you), but this framing method can also kill the pace of the story and make the first few chapters a long slog that the reader pushes through to get to the good stuff.

I’d argue that this framing method is one of the things that makes speculative fiction impenetrable to some readers. Not everyone wants to read (or write) chapters of backstory just to understand the rules of magic, or the three centuries of conflict between the Orcs and the elves, or the history of the galactic empire. When I engage with readers about my own speculative fiction, one of the things I hear over and over is that they read to escape and don’t want to have to think too hard about the story’s setting. They want to be immersed in it. They want to setting to be invisible while they enjoy the characters and conflict.

The rise of urban fantasy in the late 1990s and early naughties shook up traditional speculative fiction story structure by plunging readers right into the action. Urban fantasy writers “drip” in backstory to explain the rules of their world. There are few prologues and no “info dumps” of backstory. The world building is invisible to the reader because it’s parcelled out in a wealth of tiny, unnoticeable details. The husband/wife writing team of Illona Andrews in their Kate Daniels series are absolute masters of this form of storytelling. Over several chapters they drop in detail after detail of “the shift” and how waves of magic are now erupting over our once-familiar world. In this setting, there’s nothing unbelievable about lion shape-shifters and ancient Babylonian gods trying to take over the world.

Although the “drip” technique can be initially frustrating to readers trying to find their feet in the “new world” of the story, I’d argue it’s more rewarding in the long-run because the world built by the “drip” technique is more fully-fleshed, more completely realised. The “drip” method mirrors our experience of the real world. We don’t know everything about a new place when we arrive in it. We discover it, detail by detail, until we’re familiar with the place and immersed in a new reality.

The “drip” technique is not an easy path for a writer. It takes a huge amount of imagination to envision a setting utterly different from our own, and a huge amount of talent to convey this world in detail after detail. Finley Fenn has both in spades. When I read the Orc Sworn series, there’s never a moment where I don’t believe I’m inside Orc Mountain. From the emphasis on smells and textures in the descriptions–because it’s dark underground, so characters wouldn’t rely on sight–to the complex culture she’s built around the constant tensions of living together in small, enclosed spaces, Fenn’s world is richly, beautifully, masterfully realised. The setting permeates every part of her narrative. The Orcs are paranoid, isolationist, dominant (and sometimes domineering) exactly because they’ve been squirrelled away inside Orc Mountain, defending themselves against the hostilities of men. Where many stories spin outward from the characters to the setting, Finley Fenn’s stories spin inward from the setting to the characters. That gives Fenn’s stories a depth and realism that’s not always found in speculative fiction and why I’m an absolute devotee of the Orc Sworn series.

Review – Rush

Rush is a delightful read. It’s atmospheric, authoritative (I can only imagine the amount of research the author did), utterly engaging, and moving.

Rush by Brianna Hale

I will admit to being a Brianna Hale fangirl at this point. I like everything she writes and every time she brings out a new book, it becomes my new favorite book. But this one really is.

Rush is a delightful read. It’s atmospheric, authoritative (I can only imagine the amount of research the author did), utterly engaging, and moving. I felt so deeply with and for these characters. I was absolutely sure an event the book led up to was not going to happen – there would be *some* last minute reprieve – but no, it happened and I felt so proud of the author for making the brave choice to have her characters face real-world consequences for their behavior. I love romance that feels real and this book certainly does. It also feels quintessentially British – the setting, the way the characters talk, the juxtaposition of inner city and country lifestyles, and a certain deep wariness that comes from living in London – while retaining universal themes. The problems these characters have with trust and connection are problems all human beings experience.

For readers who are not quite sure about daddykink, this is daddykink light. There are no diapers or medical examinations and very little age-play. Quite a safe introduction to daddykink if readers are looking to dip a toe.

This is a complete story with no cliff-hanger. I can’t see a “continuation” of this story, but I hope the author returns to rockstar romance at some point because she writes it so very well.

Highly recommended.

Buy Rush here. Free to read in Kindle Unlimited.

The Politics of Rage

Lure and Stars Avail(Image used under Creative Commons Licence.)

I’ve been offline for a while. My family was affected by the Manchester Arena bombing, and it’s taken me a while to emerge from the pall that cast over our lives. I’m not ready to talk about that yet, and I’m not up to writing a political post. But I’ve been thinking a lot about motivation and rage, really since the UK vote to leave the European Union. Some of that thinking has coalesced into this post, which is actually about fictional worldbuilding.

For me, worldbuilding starts with geography. I draw maps, name places, and then work my way into the economics and politics of those locales. Settings are characters in themselves for me. I want them to have a life and vibrancy of their own. I also want them to feel realistic, whether it’s the fae Court of the Oak King in Burning Bones or a distant planet colonized by cyborgs in The Stars Avail. Realism starts with historical precedents, which makes me a student of history by necessity.

I don’t know how other students of history will view Brexit and the recent US Presidential Election, but my, perhaps simplistic, read of them is that both were driven by rage. Particularly after Brexit, I spent a lot of time listening to people who voted to leave the EU explain their vote. Some of this was on the mainstream media, but a lot of it was just speaking with business associates, neighbors and folks down the pub. With rare exception, “leavers” admitted that they didn’t really understand what leaving the EU would mean, on a national, or personal, level. The PM resigning, the pound plummeting, the loss of EU funding for agricultural and industrial interests – they hadn’t understood any of it. They’d voted to leave because they were angry. The phrase I heard most often was that they’d “had enough.” Had enough of what? I asked. I got a wide variety of answers – immigrants, austerity, government corruption. But very little had to do with the UK’s membership in the EU. What the leavers were really saying (and what I think the American people have said in electing Donald Trump), is that they have “had enough” of the loss of prosperity and stability that they considered their birthright as Britons and Americans.

This was more than nostalgia for the “American Dream.” It was more than fear of “the Other.” It was fury at deprivation and loss.

I didn’t understand that fury (and neither did the pollsters). Not until I spent some time listening to the “leavers.” Sitting across from the fellow in the pub, watching his face turn purple as he talked about having to wait for two months for a doctor’s appointment because “those immigrants” are monopolizing the NHS’s resources, I began to understand. Watching the YouTube footage of a man frothing at the mouth as he confronts a woman in a burka, telling her to “go home,” even after she explains she was born in the UK, brought the point home a little more. This is not rational. This rage defies analysis. I have to feel it, before I can appreciate why these groups of people acted against their own self-interest.

I have always known that the oppressed will revolt eventually. The sheep look up. What I didn’t understand is that oppression is a matter of degree. The relatively well-off can still feel oppressed if they are deprived of those things to which they feel entitled. That sense of oppression, of loss, of helpless anger, drives people to do things that are not logical. They’re not even intuitive. They make no sense, because they’re driven by pure emotion. The emotions of despair and loss and rage.

I still feel very uncomfortable listening the to the angry “Leaver” down the pub, or watching that YouTube video. But turning my eyes aside is the wrong reaction. In order to appreciate this emotion – and how it might feed into my worldbuilding – I have to let myself feel it. It’s not comfortable. It’s not safe. But it is the sign of our times. The politics of rage.

Following the Ripples

I’m delighted to welcome fellow sci-fi author L J Cohen to my blog!

***

Nearly a year ago, E J wrote about a topic that’s near and dear to my heart: writing realistic injuries. In the linked post, she chronicles the pain and healing time of a deep cut to her hand as a way to use her misfortune to create better fiction when her characters get injured.

I share E J’s frustration with superhero characters who don’t get injured or who heal without consequence when they do.

In creating everyman characters who are thrust into situations where they get hurt, fatigued and stressed, I need to think through every way those factors would effect their lives. It’s not enough to describe the pain – I have to follow the ripples.

Choosing to injure your character is like every other choice in a novel. It has to exist for a reason. Preferably more than one reason. Does the injury deepen characterization? Drive the plot? Limit your character’s abilities? Force your character to problem solve more fully? Change the way others relate to them?

If the only reason the character is injured is to engender sympathy, then the injury is a thin device and adds little to the overall narrative. One of the dangers of incorporating injury and disability in a story is falling into the cliché of the ‘noble victim.’ Equally problematic is when the character is injured or disabled simply to motivate the actions of the non-injured protagonist. Both choices remove agency from the character and render that person into a plot-device.

But injury and disability can be written well. One of my favorite depictions of physical disability in speculative fiction is the Vorkosigan novels by Lois McMaster Bujold. The protagonist, Miles Vorkosigan, was exposed to a poison in utero that prevented normal growth of his bones. He is considered a mutant by many in the rigid conservative society in which he was born for his deformities and has fragile bones. His frailty forces him to compete in a vicious political landscape using his wits and his will. He is both brilliant and insufferable; a wonderful, fully realized character.

A second pitfall in writing injuries is when the injuries serve the needs of an immediate plot point but have no follow through or consequence in the story as a whole. This is something common to thrillers where the hero gets shot only to be patched up by a sympathetic side character and then saves the day when any mere mortal would be writhing on the floor waiting for emergency services. Getting injured hurts. Even if no vital organs are damaged, the shock post gunshot or stabbing or burn can easily take down the strongest, most fit individual.

Shock is a protective reaction by the body and is part of a complex series of reflexes that take place without conscious thought. Typical shock reactions include: decreased blood pressure, rapid, weak pulse, lowered core temperature, rapid, shallow breathing, nausea or vomiting, dilated pupils, and loss of consciousness.

It’s far more likely that your injured character will go into shock than run into the lair of the bad guys, rescue the damsel, and ride into the sunset. And shock, if untreated, can actually be fatal.

I love the phrase E J used in the quote above: Follow the ripples. The moment of injury is the stone in the pond. What it changes is the ripples.

One of my protagonists in Ithaka Rising – book 2 of Halcyone Space – is dealing with the aftermath of a head injury he sustains in book 1. His impairments are disabling. He experiences nausea and vomiting, crippling headaches, vertigo, and is unable to focus on his computer screen or read. His experience of his injury and the choices he makes as a result of not improving drives the entire plot of the story. He believes only a neural implant device will help him, but his young age is a contra-indication. So he finds a black market source for one. There are consequences to his actions, ripples that effect him, his family, and the political landscape.

Another problem in writing injuries is when the author gets the physiologic details wrong. Absent magical healing or hugely advanced tech (and even those need to have limits and consequences), injuries take time to heal. Even the mildest of tendon strains can take several weeks to fully heal. Broken bones can take six–twelve weeks or more depending on the severity of the fracture and the overall health and age of the person. Deep cuts and penetrating wounds are a huge infection risk, as are burns. Infections can be fatal, even in a technologically enhanced world.

I had a 25 year career as a physical therapist before I became a writer. My specialty area was orthopedics and chronic pain management. When my characters get hurt, they are well and truly hurt. This year, I started a weekly twitter chat to help writers be more realistic in depictions of injuries and healing. I’m always happy to take questions. Look for #InjuryWrite or mention me on twitter @lisajanicecohen.

***

Thank you so much to L J for stopping by my blog today! She’s generously agreed to give-away an ebook of the winner’s chosing from her titles in honour of her new release, Dreadnought and Shuttle. Check it out on Amazon, Google Books, Kobo, B&N, and iBooks.

final-kindle-cover-small

When a materials science student gets kidnapped, she’s drawn into a conflict
between the young crew of a sentient spaceship, a weapons smuggling ring, and a Commonwealth-wide conspiracy and must escape before her usefulness
as a hostage expires.

Anyone who comments on this post from 13th June 2016 to 20th June 2016 will be entered into the drawing and I’ll post the winner in the comments and email them as well.

Finally, here’s a little bit more about my wonderful guest: L J Cohen is a novelist, poet, blogger, ceramics artist, and relentless optimist. After almost twenty-five years as a physical therapist, L J now uses her anatomical knowledge and myriad clinical skills to injure characters in her science fiction and fantasy novels. She lives in the Boston area with her family, two dogs, and the occasional international student. DREADNOUGHT AND SHUTTLE (book 3 of the SF/Space Opera series Halcyone Space), is her sixth novel. L J is a member of SFWA, Broad Universe, and the Independent Publishers of New England.

 

%d bloggers like this: