Ann Gimpel is a national bestselling author. A lifelong aficionado of the unusual, she began writing speculative fiction a few years ago. Since then her short fiction has appeared in a number of webzines and anthologies. Her longer books run the gamut from urban fantasy to paranormal romance. Once upon a time, she nurtured clients, now she nurtures dark, gritty fantasy stories that push hard against reality. When she’s not writing, she’s in the backcountry getting down and dirty with her camera. She’s published over 30 books to date, with several more planned for 2015 and beyond. A husband, grown children, grandchildren and three wolf hybrids round out her family.
by Ann Gimpel
What is world building, anyway? It’s kind of a dry word with crusty edges that brings something like Lord of the Rings to mind or an alien outer space landscape. At least to my way of thinking, whenever a book transits out of our normal, waking reality—whatever that is—it requires at least some level of world building to add that splash of verisimilitude to draw readers into its special world.
I’ve had more than a few people say to me, “Oh, you write urban fantasy. That’s so much easier.”
Ahem. Actually, it’s not. It’s easier to begin with a blank slate and create a whole new set of interlocking societies from the ground up. They can have whatever customs the author deems will fit. Naturally, some authors do a better job than others of creating a congruent backdrop for their story and character arcs. Ancient worlds need to feel, well, ancient. Urban primitives can’t think in twenty-first century mode. Some computer programs like Scrivener (which I don’t use, by the way, so this isn’t a plug for it) make it relatively easy to keep world elements straight.
Me, I use old fashioned story boards. With sticky notes. Yeah, quite the dinosaur, huh?
Back to world building and urban fantasy. Almost the first UF I read was something by Charles de Lint titled Moonheart. I was captivated. The idea of the Wild Hunt being alive and well in urban Canada charmed me. I wasn’t writing then, at least not fiction. I was writing plenty of case notes and grant proposals. But I sought out more books along de Lint’s lines. At that point in time, there weren’t many of them.
That’s certainly changed.
Now urban fantasy and its kissing cousin, paranormal romance, are available in such a staggering array, it’s tough to pick my way through the herd. The thing that makes a book stand out for me is one where the world feels natural. Do the vampires or Celtic gods or witches seem like they belong in the world? Or are they tossed in in such a way they stick out like unruly children?
One of the best examples of world building I’ve come across lately is in an UF book by Anne Bishop titled Written in Red. Her depiction of the Terra Indigene was exceptional. Their culture fit flawlessly and blended with the Fae who share their world. And the humans.
More specifically, how does an author figure out which elements to focus on to create a congruent, coherent, believable world? I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can give you an example from one of my urban fantasy series, Dragon Lore. I had to create a dragon society and credible time travel and have both fit into the “real world.” The Celtic gods needed their own subculture too. It took a bit of doing. That series took me about two years to complete. I wrote other things in between, but kept returning to Dragon Lore so I could finish the four books in the series.
Let’s focus for a moment on magic systems. Different creatures manipulate magic differently. Each magic system an author creates has to make sense, and magic always has a price. It always annoys me to see some superhero expend a boatload of power only to bounce back with a seemingly inexhaustible supply. Except dragons. In my imagination, their ability to manipulate power is so far beyond anything humanoid, their abilities appear limitless.
So long as we’re on the topic of dragons. They need to appear as something other than human. So does any creature that has magical ability. How does an author create a different culture? It’s language, thoughts, worldviews, and how that particular culture interacts both within and without their particular subgroup. If the dragons may as well be human in terms of their demeanor, speech patterns, and cultural expectations, the author hasn’t done a very good job. Ditto for witches, vamps, gods, angels, ad infinitum.
How do you decide what to read?
Why do some books draw you in while others end up in the DNF pile?
Do you notice inconsistencies in world building?
At what point do they detract from your reading enjoyment?
Lastly, what’s your hands down favorite book you’ve read in the last year and why?