Category Archives: Worldbuilding

I’ll be teaching a research workshop for Clarion West in May

I’ll be teaching a one-day Clarion West workshop with Louise Marley on Sunday, May 4th from 10am to 4pm in Seattle’s University District:

Fiction R&D: From Research to Ideas to Stories
Research is a creative process that can help writers with inspiration, storytelling, and worldbuilding. Lisa Gold will share practical advice on doing research and finding useful and unusual sources, and she’ll provide an annotated list of resources. Louise Marley will explore generating, refining, and developing ideas into stories. They’ll use a combination of lecture, discussion, brainstorming, and writing exercises.

Check out these other Clarion West one-day workshops:

  • Rachel Swirsky, Telling Old Stories in New Ways, April 6
  • Nicola Griffith, The Magic of Immersive Fiction, April 13

For more information or to register: http://www.clarionwest.org/workshops/oneday/fiction-rd-from-research-to-ideas-to-stories/

“The historian serves the truth of his subject. The novelist serves the truth of his tale.”

Nicola Griffith blogged yesterday about the historical novel she’s writing and different approaches to writing historical fiction:

There’s the hey, anything goes, just use the period as window dressing around a fab story camp, and there’s the never, ever, don’t evereverever, contravene what is known to be known people. (There’s an article in MACLEANS.CA that lays this out by illustrating the difference between the attitudes of Hilary Mantel and Kate Pullinger.)

Here’s an even more interesting piece from Magistra et Mater: an historian explains why she no longer reads historical fiction.

Me? Well, I love getting things right. I’ve done a lot of research on Hild and her time (some casual, some deep and complex). But I’m a novelist; I also occasionally can’t resist just fucking with things. Sometimes, though, it seems I fuck with things in just the right way–and those are fabulous moments when I know I’m really beginning to get a feel for the period. (At least in some senses.)

This seemed like a good opportunity to mention some related issues I’ve talked about in my classes on creative research for writers:

  • The research process is completely different for each writer and project. Some authors do the minimum necessary and fake the rest, others completely immerse themselves or become experts on their subject or period. There isn’t a right or wrong way–you have to figure out what works for you.
  • Think carefully about what you really need to know, why you need to know it, and what you can just make up. What degree of accuracy and authenticity are you trying to achieve? What can or should you fictionalize?
  • Decide what game you’re playing. Make conscious choices about straying from history or reality when it serves your story and your characters, but understand that some readers and critics will be unhappy about it.

John Scalzi touched on this in his recent blog post about science fiction worldbuilding. For him it’s about plausibility, keeping “the audience engaged all the way through the work without once saying, ‘now, wait just a minute…'”:

Other worldbuilders will have to answer this one when talking about their own works, but as for me, in general, I try to build my worlds at least two questions deep — that is, you make your creations robust enough to stand up to a general question and then a more specific followup question….

And for about 90% of your readers, that’s going to be sufficient rationale. For about 10% of your readers, it won’t be, but at some point, and simply as a practical matter, you realize that some folks aren’t going to be happy with your worldbuilding no matter how far you drill down, and that you can just sort of accept that as the cost of doing business in a geek-rich field like science fiction. To a very real extent, what you’re aiming for is sufficiency, not completeness.

Here are a few other links about writing historical fiction:

An interesting August 2009 BBC radio broadcast in which “Mark Lawson examines the differences between factual and fictional writers of history and between academics and populists in the telling of stories from our heritage. Writers Antonia Fraser, Margaret MacMillan, Philippa Gregory, Hilary Mantel, Sarah Dunant and Tristram Hunt join Mark to discuss the best ways of exploring the past.”

Susan Vreeland’s thoughts on writing historical fiction.

A 1998 essay by Anne Scott MacLeod, “Writing Backward: Modern Models in Historical Fiction,” about revisionism in historical novels for children:

But people of the past were not just us in odd clothing. They were people who saw the world differently; approached human relationships differently; people for whom night and day, heat and cold, seasons and work and play had meanings lost to an industrialized world. Even if human nature is much the same over time, human experience, perhaps especially everyday experience, is not. To wash these differences out of historical fictions is not only a denial of historical truth, but a failure of imagination and understanding that is as important to the present as to the past.

And on a lighter note, there’s History-Spork, a very funny blog in which historians review Hollywood movies.

By the way, the title of this post comes from a quotation attributed to historical novelist William Martin:

The historian serves the truth of his subject. The novelist serves the truth of his tale. As a novelist, I have tools no historian should touch: I can manipulate time and space, extrapolate from the written record to invent dialogue and incident, create fictional characters to bring you close to the historical figures, and fall back on my imagination when the research runs out.

Does anyone happen to know the original source of this quotation?

Update, 11/13: I emailed William Martin directly to ask about this quote, and he says it is indeed his, and it appears in the February 2000 issue of The Writer magazine. Thanks to the Seattle Public Library’s electronic databases, I was able to find his essay, which is titled “First-Person Narrators in Historical Fiction.”

Time-traveling through the English language with the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary

Matt and I recently had the opportunity to spend some time browsing through the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, which has just been published by Oxford University Press.

I began by reading the introduction. He began by looking up curse words. Once he had satisfied his curiosity about when certain very popular profanities first entered the English language, he turned his attention to the more unusual words within the inferior persons, as abused subcategory that have fallen out of use, such as windfucker (1602 to 1616), hog-rubber (1614 to 1621), chuff-cat (1653), shit-sack (1769 to 1785), and son of a sea-cook (1806 to 1977). This led to an animated discussion of the common themes that connected many of the words—comparisons to animals, sex with relatives or objects, and the inability to control one’s bowels.

That’s what happens when you put the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary within reach of a writer.

Browsing this work feels strangely like time-travel. All the words from Old English to 2003—obsolete and current, including slang and dialect—have been extracted from the Oxford English Dictionary and organized by their meanings and dates of use. This places each word within its historical context, revealing how ideas and meanings emerged and the different ways they’ve been expressed through time.

It took forty-four years to bring the HTOED to publication, overcoming what the editors politely describe as “a series of intellectual, financial, and domestic challenges.” About 800,000 meanings from the OED were transcribed onto slips of paper and organized into a unique classification system with over 236,000 categories and subcategories. A fire in 1978 would have destroyed a decade of work but for the fact that the paper slips were stored in a metal filing cabinet. They could have finished making slips by 1980, but the decision was made to add new material from the second edition of the OED and the supplements. Computers were eventually used to enter, store, and retrieve data, but much of the work continued to be done by hand.

The result is the world’s largest thesaurus, nearly 4000 pages of small type in two big volumes weighing fifteen pounds, with a slipcase and folding chart of the top levels of the classification system. I like print references because browsing can lead to serendipitous discoveries, but these books can be awkward to use. It’s especially frustrating when looking up a word with multiple meanings, as the index may list dozens of identification numbers, which means lots of page flipping. No, it’s not available online or on CD, though that may eventually change. I’d like to see the powers-that-be at Oxford University Press quickly add the HTOED to the online OED so both works can be used together and fully cross-referenced and searched.

The classification system of the HTOED is mind-bogglingly complex, forming a hierarchy of meaning from the general to the specific. At the highest level are the three main sections—the external world, the mental world, and the social world—which divide into 26 major categories, such as the earth, life, emotion, society, morality, faith, armed hostility, and communication. These branch into more detailed categories like food, clothing, people, animals, transport, love, moral evil, and sexual relations. More specific categories and subcategories lead to the synonyms and related words, which are organized by part of speech and listed chronologically with the date of the first recorded use in English and, for obsolete words, the last recorded use. (I recommend reading the “guide to the use of the thesaurus” to get your bearings.)

Each level in this hierarchy of meaning is assigned a two-digit number, which when combined creates identification numbers for every word in the thesaurus. Some words have many identification numbers because they have numerous meanings or have changed their meanings over time and thus appear in different locations within the thesaurus.

For example, in the alphabetical index, the first identification number for the noun serendipity, one of my favorite words, is 01.05.05.10.02.01|10.01, locating it in the thesaurus within these nested categories and subcategories:

01                                                         the external world
01.05                                                  existence in time and space
01.05.05                                           action/operation
01.05.05.10                                    endeavour
01.05.05.10.02                             searching/seeking
01.05.05.10.02.01 (n.)              finding/discovery (noun)
01.05.05.10.02.01|10               accidentally (subcategory)
01.05.05.10.02.01|10.01        faculty of making happy discoveries by chance

Here you’ll find that the noun serendipity was first cited in 1754. After the finding/discovery (noun) category is the finding/discovery (adjective) category, in which serendipitous (01.05.05.10.02.01|03) dates from 1958.

The HTOED will clearly be important to the study of the English language, but it also could contribute to other subjects, especially history, literature, and culture. The descriptions of life and the earth over centuries are like crash courses in the history of science and medicine. Cultural historians will look for clues in our language to our attitudes about gender, race, and class, as with the words used to describe women based on animals (mare, hen, cow, heifer, bird) or clothing (skirt, smock, petticoat). Advancements in technology are reflected in subjects like travel, tools, telecommunications, and computing. Shakespeare scholars will be able to compare the words in use during his lifetime and argue about the reasons for his word choices. Even a category like clothing can reveal shifts in morality, as when underwear became unmentionables in 1823.

I believe the HTOED could be a rich source of inspiration and world-building for writers. Historical novelists could gain insight into the past and how people lived, what they knew and believed, and how they described their own world. And they’ll know whether the words their characters are speaking were actually in use at the time. (Elizabethans would not have called a packed meal a picnic, as it was first cited in 1748.)  Fantasy writers may unearth ideas in forgotten names or descriptions of supernatural beings and mythical creatures. Poets can reintroduce lyrical and imaginative words that have fallen out of use, such as candel (Old English to 1634), luminair (1456 to 1560), or streamer (1513 to 1647), all of which once described heavenly bodies. Eclectic writers like my husband who have a strong love of word-play and enjoy collecting unusual bits of knowledge will find it addictive.

Let’s say you’d like to take advantage of the current craze for vampires or literary monster mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The HTOED can tell you when different monsters first entered our nightmares and what we called them at distinct points in time. Follow the hierarchy of categories from the external world to the supernatural to supernatural being/spirit to malignant monster (noun). Here you’ll find that the word vampyre was first cited in 1734, followed by vampire in 1796. Though vampire is still in use today, the last recorded OED citation for vampyre was in 1847. Referring to vampires as undead didn’t begin until 1897. Werewolves trace all the way back to the Old English werewulf, lycanthrope was first cited in 1813 and is still in use, but the more poetic turnskin entered the language in 1831 and exited forty years later. Oh, and zombie was first cited in 1819, two years after the death of Jane Austen.

The editors have included all those words that have been too controversial for some other dictionaries and thesauruses. Curse words, sexual slang, and offensive slurs for racial and sexual minorities appear dispassionately in their chronological place among their less inflammatory cousins. Reading certain entries may cause shock, disgust, or pain, but there is value in putting these powerful words in their historical context. If you are easily offended or prefer your works expurgated, consider yourself warned.

Priced at $395 (on sale at Amazon for $316), the HTOED will unfortunately be out of reach for many of the writers and word lovers who might appreciate it, so keep it mind if you are looking for a fabulous gift for your favorite logophile.

For more information, check out this OUP website for the HTOED and this OUP blog post with “fun facts and figures” about the work. Here’s the link to a sample page from the work at the OUP website.

UPDATE, 10/28/09: I received an email from Christian Kay, editor of the HTOED. There are indeed plans to eventually link the HTOED to the OED online and make it available to subscribers, but that could be a couple of years away. There are no plans for a CD version. So it looks like the books will be the only option for quite some time.

NEW UPDATE, 6/18/10: The Oxford English Dictionary Online will be relaunched in December 2010 and will include an integrated online edition of the Historical Thesaurus. See my blog post “Word lovers rejoice” for more information.

NEW UPDATE, 11/30/10: The new OED website has launched, fully integrating the online Oxford English Dictionary with the Historical Thesaurus. See my new blog post for more information.

Registration is still open for my October 25th class

There’s still time to register for my October 25th Creative Research for Writers class at Richard Hugo House in Seattle:

Creative research can help writers of fiction and nonfiction with inspiration, storytelling, and world-building whether they are writing about the past, present, or future, about life on earth or an imaginary world. We’ll discuss the relationship between research and writing, different types of research writers may need to do, practical tips and advice on doing research, and how and where to find useful and unusual sources of information on the Web, in books, databases, and libraries, and in unexpected places.

The class will be from 10am to 5pm on Sunday, October 25th, and the cost is $127.80 for Hugo House members or $142.00 for non-members. You can register online, by phone (206-322-7030), by fax or mail, or in person. The fall 2009 course catalog and registration information are here, and my original August post about the class is here.

My October 25th “Creative Research for Writers” class

On Sunday, October 25th, I’ll be teaching an all-day “Creative Research for Writers” class at Richard Hugo House in Seattle. Here’s the description:

Creative research can help writers of fiction and nonfiction with inspiration, storytelling, and world-building whether they are writing about the past, present, or future, about life on earth or an imaginary world. We’ll discuss the relationship between research and writing, different types of research writers may need to do, practical tips and advice on doing research, and how and where to find useful and unusual sources of information on the Web, in books, databases, and libraries, and in unexpected places.

Matt Ruff will be my special guest and share his experiences with using research in fiction.

The class will be from 10am to 5pm (six hours of class and a lunch break). My May 9th “Research for Writers” class was four hours, but my students and I felt that wasn’t enough time, so I arranged for my next class be longer.

The cost is $127.80 for Hugo House members or $142.00 for non-members, and enrollment is limited to 15.

Registration begins August 18th for Hugo House members and August 25th for non-members. During the first week of member registration, you can register by telephone (206-322-7030) or in person. Once general registration begins on August 25th, you can also register online or by mail or fax. Here’s the link to the registration information.

Here’s the link to the Fall 2009 Hugo House class catalog. Of particular note:  John Crowley will be teaching a one-day class called “The Further In You Go The Bigger It Gets: Using the Deep Structures of Fantasy” and Nancy Kress will be teaching a six-week class called “Writing Fiction: A Critique Class.”

Please email me if you have any questions about my class or if you would like information about customized private classes/workshops for groups or individual coaching.

Patricia Wrede’s list of worldbuilding questions

While browsing through the new SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America) website, which launched this week, I discovered Patricia C. Wrede’s list of fantasy worldbuilding questions to help create believable imaginary settings. (The list is not new, just new to me.) I highly recommend it, especially since many of her questions would be useful for detailed worldbuilding in general, regardless of genre.

SFWA’s Information Center contains articles for writers grouped into categories: advice for new writers, contracts and copyrights, the craft of writing, and the business of writing. (There isn’t a lot of content in this section yet, but the SFWA blog noted it will take time to transfer material from the old site to the new.)

Another resource on the site is Writer Beware, containing “warnings about literary fraud and other schemes, scams, and pitfalls that target writers.”

For teachers, the site offers a science fiction Lessons Library (in partnership with AboutSF.com), containing course outlines and lesson plans, teaching tools, and reader’s guides.