Teachers Write 7.29.15 Shape Your World with Guest Author Ammi-Joan Paquette

It’s Q and A Wednesday on Teachers Write! That means the comments are open for your questions, not only about today’s post on world building, but about whatever you want to discuss relating to writing & teaching writing. Guest authors will be popping in all day to answer, so don’t be afraid to join the conversation!

Guest author Ammi-Joan Paquette, author of PRINCESS JUNIPER OF THE HOURGLASS,  joins us for a Teachers Write Saturday reflection on world building — that magical mix of setting and circumstance that makes a character’s world feel as real as ours, even when it’s in a fairytale kingdom or another planet.

Shape Your World

So here you are: wordsmith, historian, grammar hawk… author! You’ve got some terrific characters. They’re inhabiting a pretty dynamite story. But what’s going on behind the scenes? Reading a novel without a well-developed world is like watching a stage performance without a backdrop: the actors move and interact and inhabit their roles—but it’s hard to fully immerse yourself in the story.

Something is missing.

Contrast this with lavishly rendered plays—care has been given not only to set construction, period-specific costumes, and expertly painted scenery. There’s also the small things: an ornate side table topped with a bouquet of freshly picked wildflowers; a chipped porcelain mug that has clearly seen better days; heavy brocade drapes to give a gloomy, faded glory to the scene.

None of these elements on their own could be argued as being essential to that scene. But taken together? They transport you to another world entirely.

My most recent novel, Princess Juniper of the Hourglass, was the first book I’d written which was not set, in some way, on this world we know. The land of the Lower Continent is not so different from ours, as a matter of fact, but it is fully its own place, complete with history, geography, wildlife, and more.

Once I got the hang of what I needed to do in creating this world, I had a blast! Here are some of the things I learned along that journey.

1. Ask the big questions. Nothing is too obvious when you are building a world. So you should start at the very beginning. What is your country’s name? Who is its ruler? What is the climate? What are the people generally like? In my case, it helped when I could relate my country to a real-world place I was familiar with. I quickly realized that my world had a generally European feel. I knew Torr was a tiny country. I researched small European countries to get an idea of size and population and settled on one that generally fit. This served to anchor the specifics in my mind and gave a clearer expression to the story.

2. Think visually. One of the best ways to bring your world to life is to represent it outside of the written word. For me, sketching a map was invaluable. This map was ultimately reproduced within the finished novel by the immensely talented Dave Stevenson, but for my early writing purposes, I just kept to my chicken-scratch basics. Right away, this act of creation will beg new needs: What does the rest of your continent look like? What are your country’s land neighbors? What outstanding land formations shape your world?

3. Venture outside the lines. Throughout this process, detail is your friend. You should color your world in broad strokes, without worrying about whether this information you’re gathering will be directly useful to or will even appear in the story. The population of Torr, for instance, never appears in my novel. But knowing it is extremely helpful to me in visualizing the events as they unfold across the series. Likewise the history of the Lower Continent (my characters’ piece-of-the-world)—I did a good deal of brainstorming as far as political backdrop and motivation for this, most of which had no bearing whatsoever on book 1. But once I went to begin writing book 2 (and, soon, book 3!), I was very glad to have that foundation to draw from.

4. Don’t be afraid of the mundane. Throughout this lesson so far, I’ve mostly been talking about fantasy worlds. But if you’re writing a realistic story, your world needs no less detail. It might be more easily rendered, but all of the above still applies: Draw a map of your character’s immediate neighborhood. What is the history of his or her family? Describe his relatives, best friends, acquaintances, and more.

5. Whip out your magnifying glass. Big-picture details are important; you can’t have a king without a country for him to rule. But equally important are the smaller world-building details. When it felt appropriate, I described Princess Juniper’s outfit. I invented a crest for the country of Torr, as well as a motto, which I worked into the description of the royal coach. I had a lot of fun giving details about the foods my characters’ enjoyed. I created exclamations and expressions that felt consistent with their country and worldview. The large details anchor the reader into the story; the small details anchor them in the scene.

6. Go exploring. When it comes to writing outside your comfort zone, Google is your friend. In book #2 of my series, Princess Juniper of the Anju (out next summer!), the main characters stumble upon a village built entirely in the trees. I confess, at first my imagination moved in a pretty linear way. To combat this, I went searching for treehouse images—and I was amazed as the treasure trove I discovered. There was no point where I sat down to transcribe an exact description of the images I found online, of course; but filling my mind with possibilities sparked my own imaginative potential, so that the resulting village is filled with much more detail and creativity than it otherwise would have been.

7. Leave a little room for fun. Last but not least, don’t forget to have fun with your world. Upon reading an early-stage draft of Princess Juniper, a friend commented that she would have liked to see the kids have more fun. She was so right! While part of this was plot-driven, pausing their schedule to give them time to be kids, I also wanted a little world-building specificity to bring this aspect to life. A little research uncovered a list of old-fashioned games that kids used to play in centuries gone by: for my medieval-style world, this was just the thing. Instead of giving my characters a general afternoon off, I gave them some unique and specific activities to engage in. Just one paragraph in a whole book, but it’s become one of my favorites.

Building a world, like any other kind of writing, is an intensely personal experience. Just as no end result will be the same, no journey will take the same path. But I do know that the more deeply you live in your world, the more vividly you see it, the more sharply you recreate it—the more your readers will do the same.

It’s your world. Now go and bring it to life!

Note from Kate: Got questions about world building today? (Or anything else relating to writing? Fire away in the comments!)

27 Replies on “Teachers Write 7.29.15 Shape Your World with Guest Author Ammi-Joan Paquette

  1. Thank you for dropping in to TW today! What an amazing, and positive mini-lesson of ways to create worlds. I learned with the story-borders on Monday…that I’m not a terribly visual person. It’s fun to think visually, but I do not naturally “go there” when creating. It actually feels like work—which tells me that drawing maps and things could be very beneficial to loosening up in my writing.
    My questions for today have to do with an embarrassing situation I get myself into—and really relate to Mike Jung’s post from yesterday.
    I DO take my writing too seriously at times. When I catch myself, I 1. Laugh—because I’m nowhere near submission…..and 2. Drop writing for a while to give myself a break…but that sometimes turns into not writing for too long. I also have days where I think, “you silly, silly, girl….why do you pretend to be a writer? You are a silly person wasting your own time”.
    These may be questions for my therapist……but I am wondering…..
    Do you as a writer ever find yourself being too serious and needing to lighten up? Or, do you have author friends that get all worked up that way? What are some ways to address that and shake loose from that? How do you keep your writing real and keep yourself from putting too much pressure on yourself? Are there some good exercises/activities you recommend just for this?
    I really love your website. The novel Nowhere Girl is right up my alley…..adding it to my to-read wish list right now (the beauty of being a school librarian is that books I want to read—go right onto my school wishlist!)
    Thanks AGAIN for being here. LOVE your enthusiasm and willingness to share with us.

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words, Linda, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post! (I had fun writing it :))

      As far as taking myself and my writing too seriously–I think this is a VERY valid issue and one that many of us struggle with. My best suggestion is to keep a balance. If I find myself getting too hung up on one project, or too anxious or precious about it, it can sometimes help to set it aside and work on something else. Having that change of scene and putting energy into something completely new–even something that feels “just for me” or that I’m not as emotional invested in–can help reset that creative clock and give a fresh view of the original project too, upon the return back to it.

      I hope that helps some! Best of luck with your writing and I hope you do enjoy NOWHERE GIRL when you read it 🙂

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful and detailed post to help us out today, Ammi-Joan! This is perfect timing for me as I am struggling to create specific places in my writing.

    I\’m one of those writers who tends to be descriptive in day to day details and surroundings for my characters (coffee shops, bedrooms, kitchens, gardens etc.), but usually don\’t have a specific place in mind. I fall into the this-could-be-anywhere trap. In contrast, my WIP takes place in a very real place with recognizable points of interest and landmarks. Today, my plan is to drive the two hours to Newport, RI to do some additional research on the town, mansions, and cliff walk.

    My question is how close should I stick to reality when dealing with an actual place and how much should I create? Include real street names and landmarks? Create a boarding school based on several to keep it believable but not specific? I know when I read a book that takes place in a setting where I\’ve been, I feel a certain thrill when I recognize places. But what if I\’m inaccurate in details? Couldn\’t that throw readers? Is there a danger of insulting a population? (That sounds so dramatic, but do you know what I mean?) If I\’m in Paris, I imagine I\’d include the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame etc.

    Thanks in advance to anyone who wants to share an opinion on this!

    1. Really good question, Jen! My advice would be to go true-to-life with the broad strokes but to keep your specifics original. Then you still get that authenticity (with a story that calls for it), but aren’t tied down too strongly to one specific world-map which could be limiting to other elements of your story. It may also depend on the book; when a specific country or city is important to the story, it can be a terrific addition. But if there’s no story value added to making it in a particular country or city, and especially if it’s a place you don’t know well, you might be better off keeping it general.

    2. Hi Jean,
      I’ve done both things – using specific, real places and making things up. When it was close to home I fictionalized the places for the simple reason that I have to live near these people, and God knows I’m alienating enough. I also don’t want to embarrass my kids. But when used Manhattan as my place I made Central Park paramount to the setting, and the kids lived on Central Park West.I picked a building to use as a model, but of course I didn’t give the address. I also used the Broadway play “Momma Mia.” I think it lends to the fun to reference real places, but I also think it’s imperative that you portray them accurately. So if you don’t want to do the research, leave it out. Good luck!

  3. Ammi-Joan,
    I agree with Linda (we often agree on things); Your books look fun and fantastic. I’m especially looking forward to reading your novels, and I think my children would love Paradox and Nowhere Girl. Your titles make me wish that I was a middle school librarian rather than high school!

    I’m a very visual person, and have of maps of the city and neighborhood for my historical WIP. However, I think I need to modify the map I have of the orphanage where my story takes place. The published one I found doesn’t have enough detail, but has lots of space for me to add everything I’ve created in my mind and on the page. Thank you for your post today. It’s a reminder of a wonderful tool I can be using to create a richer world for my characters to inhabit. I also plan to use this strategy with my Teen Writers’ Workshop participants.

    My question for you and any other guest authors today is: Have you ever done anything strange while researching or preparing for you book, in order to get into character or place yourself in a scene? If so, what was it?

    1. Thanks so much, Wendy! I hope you will find those ideas useful 🙂

      As far as odd research stories… I had one very awkward moment when I was researching a mystery that involved someone who had died by carbon monoxide poisoning. I think all my grilling of my expert on the phone about how much would be fatal and what the symptoms would be as it progressed, etc., gave a different impression than I’d intended, as the conversation was ended with a fairly curt, “I’m sorry, I can’t give out that information.” Oops! I do a lot of my experiential research for things I can’t get hands-on via YouTube–for example, for NOWHERE GIRL I watched a lot of footage of riding Thai motorcycle taxis in downtown Bangkok. There’s some pretty thrilling clips up there–better if I could have made the trip myself, of course, but it was a pretty close second.

    2. Well, Wendy, I bought an incredibly expensive jacket in the style of what George Washington wore and kept in on while writing until I thought I’d burn from the heat. I then wore it to author signings for awhile, but felt self-conscious in it. I’ve also gone to places with only the vaguest tie-in to my research and taken copious notes I never referred to while writing. Fun, but unnecessary.

      1. Oh, something else I did was interview someone at a baby shower about the specifics of suicide by the slitting of one’s wrists. I happened to mention what I was working on, and the woman across from me was a psych ward nurse. Strange baby shower conversation indeed, and probably revolting to the others at the table. But I got what I needed to write a great and accurate scene.

  4. Ammi Joan,
    Thank you so much for your post. I find that I get overwhelmed with the details and it prevents me from progressing with the story. Do you map out the story before you go back and build your details? I know you said the more you live in your world the more you see it. My question is how do you find balance in living in your world and still be able to move in the story? I get overwhelmed all the little details that I feel so much pressure to make sure I’m bringing to life the world I see in my head for others. Do you have any suggestions for striking a balance?

    1. That’s a really good point, Sarah – I do write the core story first thing, without worrying too much about the details and world-building specifics. Once the draft is done and I’m working on revisions, that’s the point where I’m going to start expanding and fleshing things out to add more detail and verisimilitude as needed to bring the story to life. I’m a big fan of lists – one thing at a time, check the box and move on to the next 🙂

  5. This is a great post! Thank you Ammi-Joan. I love the idea of thinking visually. This seems to be the best way to work through my current project, a children’s picture book story. I began the other day by sketching the basement where my main character will encounter his first bug (he’s terrified of bugs). I had fun recreating a cartoon image of my own basement, complete with old textbooks alongside detergents on a shelf, etc. My character will be a young, curious boy, so I envision him always with something very interesting in his hand: a toy dinosaur with a leg missing, or a dripping ice cream cone in one hand and a stick in the other. Of course, for me these are just ways to help me envision his world as he explores and tells his story. I realize that I won’t have much say in what images are illustrated on the pages if my story were ever to be published. Actually, that brings me to a question i’ve had:
    When writing children’s picture books, how much input DOES a writer have on the images that ultimately coincide on the page with their story? Do publishers just pair a story up with an illustrator, or do the writer and illustrator get to meet, talk over the story and ideas for it, etc? I’m rambling, but that is a question i’ve been wondering about for some time now. Wondering if anyone has input on that? Thanks all, and thank you again Ammi-Joan for these excellent tips!

    1. I love the sound of this story and how you’re exploring your main character and his world, Andrea! As far as the final illustrations, you’re right-on that those are pretty much out of the author’s hand in the final analysis. The publisher is the one who will choose and assign an illustrator, and typically the author will have little to no involvement in the process along the way. Occasionally there is some opportunity for input from the author at various stages, but it’s safest to assume the contrary, and then be pleasantly surprised if it happens 🙂

  6. Hi, Ms. Paquette and fellow TWer’s!

    I am a little late to the writing party today. It was a triple H day in central New York, and the pool became it’s own little world today. I wish that I had read this post before work because many times during the day, I was wondering if certain patrons to the pool would fit into any of my stories (even if I wrote fantasy:). The extreme heat brings out some odd behavior.

    This was an interesting post. It was very enjoyable to read. I write mostly realistic fiction, but I love drawing out the neighborhood, the different settings, and even the characters. My drawings are terrible, but they do serve a purpose for me.

    I’m not sure if you will make it back to the blog (it is 9:58 PM), but I was wondering:
    Does the world that you create ever come to close to looking like a real place (a state, a country)? How much do you change it (I noticed the “generally European feel”)? Also, what happens when your world becomes too far-fetched? Or does that not happen?

    I apologize for posting so late. Thank you very much for the informative lesson.

    1. Great questions, Andy – I imagine you’d get a different response from each author who answers! I’ve written books set in very specific places, such as NOWHERE GIRL, a big chunk of which is set in Chiang Mai and Bangkok. I don’t think I’ve had the issue of a fantasy place resembling the real world too much, though–once you start populating your story with specifics, I think you’ll find that each one very much expands to take on its own shape, molding itself to the contours of your world. As for a place ever growing to be too far-fetched… I’d say as long as it’s believable within your world, then go for it. Fiction has created some pretty wild settings that readers have had no problem inhabiting, after all!

  7. Thank you for taking the time to write your thoughts on world building. I truly enjoyed reading your book, “Nowhere Girl,” and can see how you used real life world building to leave me feeling everything from damp to soaking wet. I’m eager to play with these suggestions for my own YA fantasy writing.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing that, Kristen! I’m so happy you enjoyed NOWHERE GIRL 🙂

  8. Ammi-Joan, thanks for a great post. My WIP is currently based in our natural world, but I would like to try my hand at fantasy in the future. I will keep your post as a reference. Additionally, many of my students LOVE to write fantasy, so I can use the ideas for mini lessons. It’s a win for all of us!
    My question for today is how do I keep the setting from taking over the story? My WIP takes place at my family cottage. The setting is a very pervasive part of the story. Our family history, present, and future all takes place here. I find that I kind of treat it as a character. Is that OK? It is the constant throughout. I have scenes that take place in the past and then back to the present. What is the best way for me to address this? Thanks for a great post.

    1. Good question, Susan – and honestly, I think the answer is going to be different for each story. My best advice would be to write it the way your heart is calling to you. Once it’s done, set it aside for a bit and when you come back with fresh eyes, take note of how the balance feels to you as a reader. Getting feedback from trusted readers can also help you to tell whether you’ve gotten that balance just right. In general, a strong sense of place can really enhance a story – though, of course, it is important that the characters and plot do keep center stage.

  9. A very late hello to all! I’ve been out of town the past few days and am just now getting to catch up!

    I had to pipe in though, and thank you, Ammi-Joan, for what is a very timely post for me! I have been lost in the land of world building the past few days, trying to riddle out much of the world for the story I’m working on. I have bits and pieces in place, but much of it is still taking shape, and your post will help me along my way — thank you so much for being here with us today! I am sure my husband would thank you too — he spent most of a 7 hour car ride today listening to me blather on nonsensically about this world I’m lost in. 😉

  10. Hello-
    sorry, late to the party, but I appreciate the step by step creation of a new world- very helpful. Thanks!