This year for Christmas, I made up a new culture, a new religion, and a new city.
As we often do, S and I wrote stories for each other as gifts. S actually started first, and at first she kept it a secret. Eventually she had to break down and tell me, since she didn’t think she would have enough time to write if she only wrote when I wasn’t around.
Now, I had been mulling over writing a novel for her, too, and when she told me that she was already working on hers, I suddenly realized, “Oh, crap. I’d better get started.” I had a few ideas that I had been pondering for a while, but none of them were things I really wanted to rush.
So I needed something completely new. I started with an exercise out of My Story Can Beat Up Your Story to build a story around an interesting protagonist. First, name an occupation. Then think of an ironic quality–something that you wouldn’t normally expect a person in that occupation to have: a sailor who is afraid of the water, for example, or a lawyer who is compulsively honest.
Several of our novels so far (including the massive million-word “memoir”) concern agents from an elite force of deadly assassins and spies. These agents are all good-looking, smart, and above all, supremely good at their jobs. But then I thought, what if one of them wasn’t? Somebody has to be on the far left side of any bell curve, after all. There has to be at least one agent who couldn’t quite hack it. So I decided to make the story about her.
Where would such a spy be stationed? Well, probably not anywhere important. And that meant I wasn’t going to be writing about any of the locations we’ve ever used before. It had to be somewhere a little boring and out of the way. But it still had to feel like a real place.
My job was a bit easier because S and I have spent literally weeks of our lives making elaborate maps and fact sheets about different countries in our shared ‘verse. Yes, this is a little like saying that the key to running a marathon is just getting through those first 26 miles. I was able to slack off this time because I had already done an awful lot of work.
So how do you build a new imaginary country quickly? You steal.
First, you steal from yourself. I decided that since this country I was writing about was relatively small and was surrounded by larger, more powerful countries, it was the sort of place that had absorbed bits of its language, culture, and religion from them. This alone saved me a tremendous amount of time, since I could just say, “This is just like this other thing I’ve already done.” I decided, for example, that they had a syncretic religion, with the god of one monotheistic neighbor married to the goddess from another monotheistic neighbor.
Another way I stole from myself was by including a character from a previous novel. At the end of Act II of this new book, my poor incompetent protagonist has really dug herself into a hole, and someone from the main office, as it were, of her spy organization had to show up and help her out of it. Why come up with someone completely new? This was the perfect opportunity for a cameo by an established character. It really worked out well, and I think my readership (i.e. S) got a big kick out of seeing someone familiar show up in a new story.
In addition to stealing from yourself, there’s an entire real world to steal from, as well. I have a bunch of pictures from the souks of Dubai that I took when visiting there a few years ago, and those strongly influenced one of the main settings of my book. S and I had decided long ago that the language of this particular country was going to be based on Finnish (I think we picked that more or less at random). So as I was writing, I kept a bunch of browser tabs open in Firefox with sites on Finnish culture and cuisine. If I needed to say what someone was eating at lunch, for example, it would take just seconds to scroll down the page on Finnish food until I saw something interesting, which I could then put in the story.
I needed a map, too, so I would be able to keep track of where my characters were, how long it would take them to get from one setting to another, and what they might see along the way. Normally I would draw a map from scratch in GIMP. But knowing S was already hard at work at her novel, I didn’t want to waste any time. So I just got a satellite image of a port city that was in roughly the right climate for my setting, flipped it horizontally, and added the names of locations in my story. Thus, I had a working map of my city in about half an hour, rather than a day or two.
In the future, I will probably still take days and days to develop setting and character before writing, but in this instance, a quicker method worked pretty well, and it’s nice to know that it’s an option if I ever need to do it again.