Lilian – Mock Scene #2

The book, bound in cracked leather, was only a little larger than Lilian’s open hands; the pages smelled of vanilla and grass, and on the cover there was the faded picture of a willow tree with a sword in its roots. Such a simple thing. Yet, when Lilian read it, it was with the full knowledge that if anyone saw her, it would be the end of her life as she knew it.

However, she also knew that come tomorrow, she may never get the chance to read this book again. It would be out of her hands, stuck on the shelf of some noble who would never truly appreciate the wonderful story within. A hundred books had passed through her hands and each one had been the same way: delivered by her father to someone with enough money to buy the right to read. How anyone could read a novel and not care about the story was something she would never understand.

Her dad had decided to take the long way back to Corseil, just so she’d have more time to read the book before they were forced to finish the delivery. He was a Royal Librarian. And a Librarian only finds books, they don’t own them. Lilian, as the child of a Librarian, had neither privilege. So these precious moments on the road, so few and far between, were her only opportunities to do what she loved most. Read.

The motor carriage rocked, clattered, rumbled, and rattled constantly, but luckily Lilian had long ago grown used to reading under these conditions. The interior of the black carriage was lit by the hum of electric torches, which cast their orange glow across the worn leather seats and the family of three that sat in them. She looked at her younger brother, Jasper, who was snoring in the passenger seat next to their dad.

Lilian and Jasper shared the same honey-blonde hair, and though he was almost two years younger than her, people often mistook him for being the oldest. He was nearly as tall as their dad, who was the odd one amongst the trio. He had scruffy brown hair and a short beard that was already developing flecks of grey.

Lilian watched as her dad stared endlessly at the illuminated road in front of them, noticing the bags under his hazel eyes, despite them being hidden behind wire-rimmed spectacles. He’d barely slept since they went looking for this book, and she could still see the stain of blood on the sleeve of his white button-up.

“The dangers of being a Librarian,” he’d said, lightheartedly, as she’d stitched up the wound just a few, short hours ago. She’d scolded him for going out for the historia on his own. It was his own rule, and yet he’d broken it. Why even bother creating the rules if he was going to just run off on his own and forget about them? She was still upset over that.

Outside, they were finally leaving the cobblestone streets of the town called Astonmire, where they’d found the book she now had in her lap. Astonmire had been just like most towns they visited for her dad’s work. Secluded, small. But the trees were different here. Tall. They rose up like narrow pillars with hardly a branch, before forming a thick canopy over their heads just as the vehicle wound its way onto a dirt path. With the lights of the small town finally behind them, she was in the clear.

Lilian stared down at the book in her lap. So small for something so dangerous. She only had a few hours left on the trip, though, so she opened the cover and began to read. The pages were coarse, but not too stiff, though the edges had begun to chip away. Her eyes moved over the box-shaped symbols. She sounded it out in her mind and read…

In the forest, there was a creek…

…and then blinked in confusion as she heard her name.

“Lilian,” her father said. “Lilian, are you okay?”

She was standing. Why was she standing?

She looked around, noticing that her dad, her brother, and a man she didn’t know were watching her with worried expressions. “I’m sorry, w-wh-what was that?,” she asked, shaking her head. She took in her surroundings, noting the polished decor, the glittering chandelier, and the man standing next to her father, dressed in a finely tailored dinner jacket and holding a cane with a stone carved headpiece shaped like a bear. Hadn’t she just been in the car reading?

She was dressed in the same clothes; floral skirt, white blouse, boots, and a loose shawl draped around her shoulders. Her mess of honey-blonde hair was still stuffed in the knitted cap she always wore, which didn’t really come as a surprise. But somehow, everything else had changed. She was standing in the foyer of what was clearly the home of a noble. How had she…

“I asked if you were okay. You looked like you left us there for a moment. Daydreaming, dear?” her father asked, before turning to look at the man in the dinner jacket. “I apologize for the concern, Mr. Caraway, we’ve had a long trip. You know how extended travel gets to you,”

“Oh, no worries, no worries. I completely understand. I’ll let you take your leave. I’ll have the money for retrieving the book sent to your place of residence, as usual,” the man named Mr. Caraway said, raising the little, leather-bound novel in his hand. Lilian stared at the familiar cover. A willow tree with a sword in its roots. A sharp pain of confusion rose up in her mind once more. How had she ended up here? Her brother who was standing to her right caught her eye and gave her a look that clearly said, ‘What’s wrong?’, while their dad finished wrapping up pleasantries. She shrugged and mouthed the word ‘later’, before returning her attention to her father.

“Thank you, sir. I’m glad I could be of service,” her dad said. He turned around and ushered them out the front door. Lilian blinked as the sun hit her eyes, the crisp autumn air carrying the smells of leaves and warm hearths. In front of her the city of Corseil sprawled before her, a jumble of red-tiled roofs and brick chimneys on the foothills leading down to the distant coast. The manor they were at was on one of the tallest hills, and from here she could see down to the streets below and the sea beyond.

“What was that about?,” Jasper asked, the moment they were out in the open air. But her father grabbed her by the elbow before she could answer and led her to the motor car waiting for them in the driveway. He walked around to the other side of the vehicle and turned to face her.

“Lilian, you need to be more careful. What happened? I had to ask you three times to hand over that book. We’re lucky Mr. Caraway is a forgetful kind of man, or he might have been suspicious,” he said, lifting up her chin and staring into her eyes. He was doing that thing again, where he looked at her as if she were a sick child and he were a doctor.

“Dad, really, I’m fine. I’m sorry. I’m just really tired, is all,” she said, giving her best impression of a carefree smile. He kept his eyes on her. For a moment she was worried he might start one of his lectures, to remind her what would happen if people found out she could read. But then he nodded and opened the back door to the carriage. She climbed in, sighing with relief.

But was she really alright? She thought back to the cover of that book, the one Mr. Caraway had been holding. The one with the picture of a willow tree and a sword. Something was wrong. Very wrong.

Jasper climbed into the passenger side, turning around in his seat. Outside, her father was cranking the engine back to life.

“So, how was the book?,” Jasper asked. “You were practically in another world the whole time you read it,”

She opened her mouth to answer. She was going to tell him about the sudden loss of time. The two siblings told each other everything, and there had never been a secret between them. Unless it was a secret they were both sharing. But just as she was about to speak, the car door opened and her dad climbed in. He took off his gloves and rubbed his hands together, looking between the two of them.

“Alright, who’s hungry? You can tell us all about the book over something hot to eat,” he said. Jasper was still looking at her, and now so was her dad.

“Strangely enough…I-I don’t remember,” she said. And the the strange thing was…she was telling the truth.

“You,” her brother said, “You don’t remember,” as if that were the most ridiculous statement he’d ever heard.

“Yeah…,” she said, before adding, “I must have been really tired,”

Her brother and dad exchanged looks, but no one said a word. Jasper turned around in his seat, but not before giving her a look that clearly stated he wasn’t satisfied with her answer. He probably thought she was just waiting until she could talk without dad around. No one voiced their concerns, and without any more questions, the motor carriage began rattling down the drive. Lilian gave a glance behind her at the manor of Mr. Caraway. Inside he was probably tucking that book away on a shelf somewhere, under lock and key. Just part of a collection.

No one needed to tell her how strange her statement was. They were all thinking the same thing. Because in her sixteen years of living, Lilian had remembered every word she had ever read. Every word, until today.

Worldbuilding Process: The First Step

I’ve scoured the internet for worldbuilding tips and methods. I’ve read just about every list of questions, every article on developing fictional cultures, and watched a million video series. They all tell you about these hypothetical stories and situations you could plug them into, but what they don’t offer is a feeling of grounding. We don’t see this process, and so it still feels almost mystical. So, I thought I’d give a shot at showing something different. Outlining my process for worldbuilding, as I develop a brand new, completely undeveloped story. And I’m sharing it step-by-step with you. From initial concepts, to revisions. But I figured it would help if I started with an article on what worldbuilding entails, to me.

What is worldbuilding? Where do you begin? Should you be creating some sort of profile or answering a list of questions? What’s important and what can be skipped? These are all really important questions, and far more common than you may believe.

Worldbuilding is the process of developing a fictional universe and revealing it through story. It’s learning about a place that has never existed before that moment and figuring out what its rules are. This applies to any form of fiction, not just science fiction and fantasy. There are rules in the world you are trying to show your readers, and the more your world differs from our own, the more you’ll need to know. This is why science fiction and fantasy often have such a strong focus on worldbuilding. There’s a lot that needs to be explained.

So where do you begin? At the First Step. Figuring out what your basics are. You more than likely have a basic idea. Maybe it’s just an image in your head and nothing else. This time around, I had a basic idea of a world where the ability to read was rare. I knew I had a character, that she could read, and that she was forced to keep it a secret. Already I knew a few things about my world, just through those few things.

Worldbuilding, is about asking the right questions. A lot of places will give you long lists of things to ask yourself about how your world works, but what you end up creating is a beautiful painting and nothing more. You’re writing a story. A story is conflict and character. And the world is a stage for that. It’s a representation of those elements.

The questions I ask myself are based off consequences. If this were true, what would that mean? How would that work? Take our character, Lilian. We don’t know a lot about her, but we do know she has a conflict. She can read, but she isn’t allowed to let anyone know. Why is that?

Maybe she lives in a society where women aren’t allowed to read. This would put her in an interesting dynamic, but it wouldn’t explain why she likes to read so much and who taught her. And if someone taught her to read, how come they don’t care that she can do that. Oftentimes the first idea you have won’t be your best. It’s too simple, and it doesn’t quite fit.

So, maybe literacy is uncommon. Perhaps it’s something only the nobility do, and for others to have the gift is rare. But why must she keep it a secret? Literacy being uncommon doesn’t mean illegal. The conflict must come from somewhere else. I decided that I wanted her to have a family. I imagined a brother and a sister, but no mother. And I started by toying around with the idea of a world where books can be found everywhere. Ancient texts were common and they contain power.

In a fantasy world, we often have magic. And I knew I wanted this to be fantasy. I imagined ruins of ancient libraries dotting a vast kingdom that long ago had once been home to the greatest collection of knowledge in the world. And I thought of what it would mean if books held their own power. So you begin asking more questions. If books contain power, they can be found all across the kingdom, but only the nobility can read them, you would imagine a system to maintain power.

People very rarely want to share power, and systems of government are often times little more than systems of keeping power in certain places. Usually amongst the wealthy. The idea became that in this world, people could create magic from books. Read through a book and see the word for a tree and using your gift you could read the word aloud and make a tree grow from the book. But like all magic, you must put in limits. So how to keep something like that from becoming overwhelming…

Perhaps the book is destroyed in the process. Only so many books in the world, you don’t want to burn them all up. But it would need more than that. If that were the only limit, then most of the books in the world would have long ago been destroyed through use. I imagined that with practice, and a little skill, you could learn to read aloud not just a single word, but a group of words. Or a sentence. Or a paragraph. And if you were truly gifted, entire pages. Each reading, each spell, burns that book up, so you have to be careful with what you choose to use it for.

Certain books will be prized for the strength of certain passages. Nobility would spend years memorizing a single book, word for word, just so they could better know what abilities they have at their disposal at any given time. But you may find yourself with a book with a powerful passage about a wall of fire that could bring your enemies to their knees that you’ve been saving for years. After all, the threat of power is often enough. But then suddenly you have to use the book for a different phrase in it, because you have no choice. Rather than summoning the great wall of fire and destroying an army, you’re forced to use it to pick a lock.

Most books don’t live in these extremes. And in truth, most nobles only study the skill as a standard of station. It’s a game of who has the better book. And also, who has the skill to use the most words from a book. Some may only have the talent to bring a single word to life, while another may be able to bring a whole phrase into being. These elements are shaped by your imagination when created.

And so the beginnings of a magic system came into play. But not only that, a system of government, economy, and traditions. It tells me a large part of what is valued in this kind of world, and what isn’t. By asking the right questions about each of these facets, you’ll be brought to many different alternatives along the way. Which one do you choose?

Whenever multiple possibilities come up, weigh them against your story. Hold them up to your character and your conflict. A girl who can read, but must keep it a secret. Does it add to that, or does it complicate it? After a few days of listening to my character, I’ve gone through a single day of brainstorming the rest of the world.

I know that her father is a Librarian. A non-aristocrat who can read, trained by the nobility at a special school and given the task of tracking down books for them. Like collectors. I know that if you’re discovered to have the ability to read, you’re given one of two choices. You either pay for a personal tutor to train you on reading and magic and controlling your powers, or you go to the one school in the country that teaches it. You get separated from your family and sent far away to learn a job where you’ll work for the nobility for the rest of your life. The price for being able to read is your freedom.

I know her greatest aspiration is to write her own historia (the term for these ancient books), and that her greatest fear is lose her family (since the death of her mother). This means that her fears are in direct opposition to her goals. She can’t write a historia without people knowing she can read and getting the proper training, and she can’t do that without being taken from her family. This creates inner conflict. Notice how worldbuilding slipped into character development so easily?

That’s because it’s connected. Stop trying to write them separately, like they’re independent. They aren’t. Each will influence the other. Your only goal is to keep asking questions and then taking your answers and weighing them against your story. I’m going to keep adding in concrete details over the next few days on my Worldbuilding Process, in a comprehensive series that’ll take us through all my stages. Let me know in the comments what you think of the story so far, what your initial stage is like, and keep an eye out for the next part in the series, where I’ll go over some specific details to keep in mind. There will be some outlines, and profiles, but they’ll relate to how I use them. What works for me, might not work for you, so keep that in mind while reading this. Oh, and on a secondary note, this blog post was exactly 1667 words, which is exactly how much you need to type each day to finish 50000 words by the end of NaNoWriMo. Looking at it from that perspective, it’s not that much is it? If you’ve never tried NaNoWriMo, I suggest giving it a go. Feel free to ask me any questions about the worldbuilding process or writing in general. I’m always willing to help out. Happy worldbuilding, and good luck on your own writing adventures!

Lilian – Mock Scene #1

The festival was like bright paint on the island, and for one afternoon they had been allowed to marvel in it. Lilian looked out the window of their motor carriage at the lamplit streets, cobblestone roads still covered in rainbow colored dust and thousands of little white strips of blank paper. Paper prayers that the people hoped would be carried to truth in the historias. But Lilian knew that come morning all those strips of paper would have just blown away with the wind. That there were no ‘truths’ in the historias, only wonderful stories. But this is something only someone who could read would know. And she wasn’t supposed to be able to read.

Overhead, a burst of colour lit up the night sky.

“See, you still got to see your fireworks,” her dad said, as he climbed into the front seat of the motor carriage, turning to look back at her. He shook her knee with a comforting smile, turned around, and the vehicle rattled on forward. In the passenger seat, her brother turned around to face her, holding something in his hands with a smile on his face.

“Dad found this one while we were at the festival. I read the first few pages. I think you’ll like it,” he said, green eyes beaming under his red hair. Lilian’s eyes widened as she took in the plain leather cover and binding. She grabbed it quickly, opening the first page and seeing the familiar script of a true historia, then glancing up at her father in the front seat.

“You went out there alone? Are you okay? You should have told me, I would have gone with you. Jasper, you should have gone with him,” she said, turning on her brother.

“Hey, I didn’t know that’s what he was doing, either”

“Really, Lily, I’m fine. Your father isn’t completely useless, you know?,” her dad defended with a shake of his head. He was smiling, but she wasn’t fooled. He looked disheveled, tired. He hadn’t combed his dark hair and he clearly hadn’t shaved today, with a mottled shadow of light grey and brown in the stage just before a full beard. She stared down at the book in her hands, wondering over the cover. It was faded, but you could make out the light image of a tree, like a willow, with a knotwork of roots that kept hold of a sword, like fingers wrapped around something precious.

“You’ll have to read quick, though. We’ll be in Corseil by tomorrow morning,” he said. Jasper turned round in his seat, and with one last glance to the fireworks going off over the town, Lilian opened up the book and began to read. She read knowing that come morning, she may never get to read it again. And like a very good dream, it’ll be gone by tomorrow.

Finding Your Protagonist

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When you look for a character, you are committing to the most elusive hunt in the world. The hunt to understand another person. To truly be able to figure out how they would feel, how they would act, what they would do. In such a daunting situation, most of us writers end up writing people that are just like us. At least, in the manner of their worldview. We write what we know. But it’s a fine line between channeling past experiences to empathize with a character and writing a contrived cast with no life.

So, how do you ensure life in your characters? I’ve often found myself in moments, trying to find a character. I start trying to think one up. You run it through some charts and profiles and identify fears and motivations and think to yourself, I’ve got a really well developed character. But then you go to write them, and there’s no magic. Did we take the magic out of them by planning them too much? And so then you start trying to write without overplanning, but you just find yourself staring at a blank page.

Both of these situations come from not letting yourself find a character. Not create one. Discover one. You need to preserve the magic. If you don’t believe in them as magic, you’ll never be able to create that feeling in your readers. And when you “create” a character, you’re plugging them into formulas and charts and making it a science. Writing needs magic, not formulas. But I’m rambling. You’ll find me doing that here and there. Back to the subject.

How do we create this mysterious magic, this life, in our characters and writing? I can only say what it’s like for me. It starts with listening. Closing your eyes, or staring at the ceiling, and just listening. Think of places. I call this part “seeing vague shapes”. Like ships on a foggy sea, just lights and impressions in the mist. Finding a protagonist is like being stranded on the open seas, floating on a raft. It’s dark, and foggy, and you’re just hoping that one of the shapes in the mist comes close enough for you to see each other. Then you just see where the ship takes you.

I spend the time on this boat getting to know the crew. Our story won’t begin until we reach the port, but we have plenty of time to get to know each other before then. A month on the open sea, with the captain and his crew. Thirty days to get to know your protagonist and supporting cast.

I like to use a sketchpad for the whole concept stage. Blank white paper, with no lines. This time around I only got to see my character here and there. I knew she had a very good memory. She had memorized every word she ever read. I knew that her being able to read was a fact she had to keep secret, but I didn’t know why. I found out her name was Lilian, and that only her brother called her Lily. I found out that she bites her nails when she reads. That she’s torn between her dreams and her fears. The dream to write her own story (and to be worthy of one), and the fear of separating her family. I’ve been able to catch glimpses of her strong bond with her brother, the deep love she has for her father, and yesterday I finally got her to talk to me. After days of listening, I finally heard her speak. To answer the questions I had for her. Hopefully today I’ll be able to heard her think. I just need to remember to keep listening.

I recommend listening to good music and looking at fantasy environmental art. There’s tons of boards on Pinterest that are great for that and I’ve started developing my own references board on the site to track my inspirations. Let me know about how you develop and discover your characters. I’m interested to hear how other people create characters. There is no right or wrong way, and what works for one person might not work for another. And what works for you now, might not work for you later. It’s always good to hear about as many methods and techniques as possible. So let me know, do you prefer to plan it all out, just come up with it as you go, or something in-between?

Preparing for NaNoWriMo

So it’s that time of year. With less than a month until NaNoWriMo, I’ve decided to do something a little different for me. I’m going to post and record my own process as I prepare for my new novel. From character development to worldbuilding, I’m recording the whole ordeal. So keep an eye out and be sure to follow me on Twitter for musings and thoughts concerning the process.

I’ll share all my notes, resources, character profiles, references, and more as I set up and begin my preparations for the annual event. Just to put it in perspective, in case you’re not familiar with the event, NaNoWriMo is a month long writing marathon with the goal of 50,000 words in 30 days.

That’s a little bit longer than Ray Bradbury’s classic, Fahrenheit 451, which was around 46,000 words and it’s considerably smaller (only 1/6) than the first Game of Thrones book. When you put it like that, it’s not so bad is it? Keep am eye out for regular updates and feel free to ask me any question you can think of, writing related or not.