A is for Architecture

Welcome to NaNoWriMo! For those of you who don’t know, November is National Novel Writer’s Month, in which aspiring authors are challenged (during the holiday season!) to write a novel in one month, or at least to put 50,000 words on one project, which for me is more like a short story, amiright? Ha!

Anyhoo, in addition to the project’s website at nanowrimo.org, there are a ton of smaller groups of writers who informally participate and encourage each other, and I was asked by one of these if I would share a few thoughts on the subject of writing (and by ‘a few,’ they meant one a day for the month of November) and I reluctantly said okay.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the idea behind Nanowrimo and I’ve participated for as long as I knew it existed. But I have real trouble thinking of myself as a writer with something new to say on the subject of writing. After all, I’ve only got nine books out there and they’re all indies. I make my living this way and I pay all my bills, but I’m still not sure if that qualifies me to call myself a professional author. “That’s okay,” they told me. “We’re not the real Nanowrimo group. Just have fun with it. Whatever you think you do well, just talk about it.”

Yeah, right. Just talk about it. For thirty days. Oh, and keep it PG-rated, which, considering my preferred genre, is a hell of a restriction. But okay, there is one thing that I think I do pretty well. So during the month of November, in addition to my usual Hooks, Sneak Peeks, and HD Thomson’s Hot Autumn Nights blog hop, I will be presenting the ABCs of Worldbuilding, with emphasis on sci-fi, fantasy or other essentially alien settings. Bear in mind that these are just my personal thoughts, not the One True Way to build your book’s world.

If you are interested in learning more about National Novel Writer’s Month, please go here and check them out. You can register with them, find a local group, or even start your own with friends and family (I did that last year with my sisters and my father. All of us made 50,000 words and earlier this year, my father completed his first novel—from an idea he’s had for forty years!). The idea is not to write a perfect novel, but merely to break through the fear of starting and just get the words on paper. In the meantime, check back daily for new content during the month of November.

* * *

A is for Architecture

Her eyes were adjusting to the darkness, giving her tantalizing glimpses of a stone kingdom of phenomenal beauty and majesty.  The floor was not rough-cut stone as it had seemed on her first steps, but had been shaped in intricate whorls and ridges, no doubt to make it easier for naga to traverse.  There were archways here and there, opening into caverns of impossible height and depth, where spires of swirling stone melted upwards to meet bejeweled stalactites, and lacy-railed bridges crossed pools that had never known a sun’s warmth.  Glowing stones as thick as stars illuminated an endless palace that she saw in glances from one archway or another, but the only things that moved were right here—just him, just her, just the hideous thing lurking in the darkness behind them.  Light glowed golden or eldritch blue from a dozen vaulted windows, but she saw no one in the chambers beyond. – The Army of Mab


After an eternity of climbing down in a black spiral, she finally caught a glimmer of light at the bottom. It grew as she approached, enough to make out an open doorway, covered in layers of hanging curtains. They waved in the grip of a cold breeze, spilling out slivers of tantalizing light with each lazy billow of crimson, black, and gold. – The Scholomance

 * * *

It’s the establishing shot of virtually every sci-fi movie: a vibrant skyscape full of unusual color, perhaps with extra moons or a ringed planet floating behind a cluster of pointy towers and floating roads. It’s the silent voice that introduces your characters; one glance at the jagged black towers of Mordor tells you everything you need to know about the creatures who dwell there. I realize these are visual examples, but set design is as important for books as it is for films—more so, maybe, especially when it comes to writing about a world that does not exist outside of the author’s imagination.

But a house is a house, right? Well, no. There are so many building styles here on boring old Earth, all with their own distinct aesthetic and traditions. Even caves and hollow trees would present their own unique challenges to those who reside within. So explore them!

Now I’m not saying you need to take a course in architectural design theory or tour some Roman ruins before you start writing. Broad strokes and simple language can convey as much as paragraphs crammed full of “poststructuralistic influences” and “flying buttresses”. Having said that, there are a few things I try to keep in mind when designing the look of my world.

Form follows function. The phrase may have been coined in the 19th century, but this is a concept that goes back as long as folks have been stacking bricks together or tying hides to mammoth tusks. Simply put, it means to think about how your space needs to be used before you pretty it up. This is of special importance when it comes to non-humans with particularly non-human characteristics. Flying races, for example, inspire images of graceful towers and majestic aeries, but are unlikely to even think of stairs, which may present quite a problem to visitors.

Know the language. As I said, overly-specific words and phrases can distract your readers rather than immerse them, but a general understanding of the subject matter is always a good thing for a writer to have. There are lots of great resources out there, but my favorite is this one at http://www.aviewoncities.com/architecturalterms.htm It contains a short list of common architectural terms, with pictures so I can clearly see what it’s describing. And of course, there’s always wikipedia’s Glossary of Architecture, if you feel like spending the day link-hopping. Just remember to watch out for words that are too specific to one region or culture when writing for an alien or fantasy race; describe the ornate tops of your elfin columns, but don’t call them Corinthian.

Get inspired. If you want to write about a subterranean alien city, get as close to one as you can with ‘mood movies,’ video game concept art, or good old-fashioned internet crawling. Find the images that resonate with you and you may find it easier to make your words resonate with someone else.

And of course, the cardinal rule: Show, don’t tell. Descriptive passages should flow naturally within the story. Those little details are what gives your setting depth and dimension, but beware of bringing your story to a complete halt while you wax rhapsodic about the cornices. (And yes, I’m reminding myself as much as anyone else.) On the other hand, if it’s your character’s first time in a demon-lord’s throne room, he’s allowed to gawp at the hellish elegance and so allow the reader to see it through his eyes.

Above all things, remember that world-building is about enhancing a story, not writing a travel-guide. Like the establishing shots of any good movie, your alien architecture should help to set a mood and embellish a scene, but even the best set design is no substitute for a plot. Paint a vivid picture, but hang it in the background.


6 responses to “A is for Architecture

  1. What you say makes sense. I have often wondered if authors have the whole picture, the whole story in their minds while they write. It makes sense that one would look, immerse, study to help clarify the “vision”. I know that authors research, but I guess I thought that would be only authors who were going for historical accuracy. I didn’t imagine that fantasy writers would do that too.

    • I don’t have a lot of experience writing historical fiction, but in what limited experience I do have, I have to say that I do more research on imaginary worlds than real ones. Or maybe it just seems that way because the real world has already been researched and I can just look something up, versus having to do research to make something up.

  2. Well, that post was fascinating! I think I will thoroughly enjoy reading about how you craft your worlds during NaNoWriMo. The last sentences really resonated with me, ” Paint a vivid picture, but hang it in the background.” Very descriptive! As a reader, that background is so important as it can enrich a scene to stratospheric heights taking you along for the ride. Or, it can leave it flat as dough that won’t rise. And how disappointing is that?

    • The temptation to describe everything in a fantasy or alien setting is extremely strong. One of the things I’m still struggling to learn is how to say as much as I can in as few words as possible.

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