S has already posted about some of our favorite reference sites, but I thought it might be fun to talk a little about the reference materials that we have made for our own fantasy world. It might explain a little about our process of outlining and writing, as well as how worldbuilding becomes a cumulative process.
For most of this novel, I wrote with two MS Word files open, side by side (this is pretty easy now that I’ve got my new laptop, Ellard, with a 1080p screen). One file would be my detailed outline, telling me what I had to write, while the other one would be the novel itself. I like to be able to look back and forth to see where I’m going and to make sure I’m not leaving out something important.
I made a map of the principal location of the book and made that my desktop. In Windows, all I have to do is flick my touchpad down and to the right, and I’ll be looking at my map. I can check distances or refresh my memory on how to spell place names, and then go right back to writing.
At the same time, I had open Firefox with (at the very least) Behind the Name and Google Translate. I’ve certainly been known to just use asterisks in place of words, spells, or names when I’m in the middle of a thought and wanted to get it all down before I lost it. My first drafts are littered with a lot of people with names like “General ***” who are from places like “the city of ****.” But most of the time, I like to be able to fill in those blanks as quickly as possible. It’s not much of a distraction from my writing to bring up the Behind the Name tab and look for an appropriate name from the appropriate culture.
Beyond those files and websites, though, are all the older stories and reference works that we’ve come up with over the course of seven years.
For example, at one point a few days ago, in addition to the novel and my outline, I had open six other files on my laptop:
First was the grand “Story Timeline,” which is the history of the Myrciaverse, color coded for all the major countries. We started this when we first were writing the Quartet, and it’s been getting filled in ever since.
The second and third files were the informational files about the two countries who are at war in my story. Again, we started these files years ago, so most of this information has already been written down; I all need to do is go look it up. There are sections on religion, the arts, education, government, law, the military, the role of women, and sexual morality (among other things). So if I want a character from a polytheistic country to invoke the name of one of his gods, I just need to open up the file and pick one from the list.
The fourth file was a more detailed exploration of one of those two countries, which I made when writing Mistress of Archers. There’s a lot in there about the military customs of that country, including how their officer class is trained. Since one of the POV characters in Last Outpost is an officer from that same country (albeit two and a half centuries earlier), this was obviously very helpful in figuring out her backstory.
The fifth file was “Astronomy of the Myrciaverse,” which is something I came up with when writing A Glass of Sand and Stars, in which several of the main characters were students of medieval astrology/astronomy. I sat down before I started writing that book and worked out a really quick astrological system for our ‘verse, because I didn’t want to have to make it all up on the fly and get bogged down. Now, if I have a character look up at the night sky and see a constellation, or if I want someone to talk about what sign someone was born under, I can open up that file, pick whichever seems appropriate, and keep writing.
The sixth file was “Last Outpost Characters,” which had the character profiles for all the main characters in the book. I’ve described in a previous post what these are like—they’re just basic information and backstory, so that if I want one character to say, “I remember when we first met, *** years ago,” I can actually look that sort of thing up. And if I have (as I do) one character who is 5’ 9”, and another who is 5’ 3”, then I need to remember that if we see that second character from the point of view of the first, she will perceive the second person as being short. As I mentioned in that previous post, I’ve made mistakes concerning characters’ heights before, and wouldn’t you know it, I almost did it again this time! Luckily, I’ve got the character profiles to keep me straight.
We have a folder in our OneDrive account where we keep all these reference sheets, and as you can see, they continue to be useful long after we’ve finished writing whatever novel originally occasioned their creation. Even the character files for a novel can be useful for later novels. Especially as the wizards in our world live for 2000 years. One of the main characters in Last Outpost was also a main character in A Fatal Humor, so when I did the character profiles for Last Outpost, I was more less able to copy and paste what I’d already done for her. In this way, every novel builds a little bit on every novel that came before, and each time around, worldbuilding gets just slightly easier, partly because we’ve had so much practice at it by now, and partly because we’ve done so much work already.