Proudly Paranormal Blog Hop – Wren Emerson
During the month of March I will be participating in blog hop with some other lovely authors of exciting paranormal reads. Check them out for interesting articles on all aspects of writing (and reading) in the paranormal genre and for chances to win lots of great prizes.
Today it’s all about me. I gave it some thought and I decided that rather than talk about my books, I would tell you a bit about how I do my world building for paranormal/urban fantasy novels. One aspect that my debut novel, I Wish…, is consistently praised for is the interesting setting that I have with the town of Desire. I’m going to show you how I get to that point with a new idea. It’s going to be a bit long, but if you stick it out, hopefully you’ll find something of what I’m describing to be useful to your own process.
This is my cold weather writing nook. The only difference in the summer is that I like to drag my table out to the screened second story room and write out there. So there’s less sticky note action. Total cost for this set up, furniture and all, (minus the computer) was probably around $75 and you can definitely use things you already have around the house to cut costs even more.
- Tri fold poster board- you can use the wall if you like, but I like the portability of the poster board. This is going to be your primary planning space for the first stages.
- Sticky notes- you might prefer to do this stage with index cards or all digital with computer software, but I’ve found that I think better when I can easily manipulate my scene and sticky notes are cheap so there’s no feeling that every idea has to be solid gold to merit being written down.
- Notebook- this can be replaced by a note taking software, but you should really have one or the other. I like to use both.
- Pens, flags, highlighters- this is really a collection of things that will help you keep your work organized. I have a single subject quad notebook and I use the flags to easily find different projects I’m working on. Highlighters and colored pens help keep my notes organized for easy browsing.
- Note taking software- To do what I do, you absolutely need a way to take notes easily. My recommendations are Onenote (if you use a Windows machine) or Curio (for Mac). They are fairly pricey, but in my opinion, they are the absolute best note taking programs out there. Other people might have different opinions, but I have used both extensively and adore them. A free program that will work ok is Evernote. It’s not my favorite, but it’s a decent replacement if you’re on a budget, and what writer isn’t?
- Mind mapping software- I use the mind mapping capabilities of Curio, but if you’re using anything else, you’ll want to check out Xmind. It’s free, easy to learn, and powerful.
- Family tree software- I wouldn’t say you NEED to make a family tree, but when writing a paranormal with creatures that can live centuries, it’s very helpful to be able to see how many generations that would really be. I’ve had pretty good with My Heritage, which is free, but nothing I’ve tried is super paranormal friendly. I’m waiting for the programer who realizes there’s a market for immortal creature family trees, lol.
Now that you have your things together, I’m going to give you some homework that will help you overcome writer’s block forever and virtually guarantee that you’ll never struggle for new projects to write. It’s so easy you can do it in less than 10 minutes a day. Do I sound like an infomercial? Sorry, but this is the real deal.
Start a list, either on paper or in a computer program, and every day add 5 ideas to it. That’s it.
What do I mean by ideas? Every single day we’re exposed to stimuli from dozens of sources. Your mind then takes all this information and sorts through it and combines it in interesting ways. If you take the time to write down the things that capture your imagination you will eventually end up with a valuable list you can refer to in the future when you are looking for a prompt.
My lists include all sorts of ideas. I have basic character sketches all the way down to just a specific trait that I find interesting. I write down things about movies and books that I find especially interesting and would love to take in a different direction in my own writing. And, of course, if actual plot ideas occur to me, I write those down too. Anything goes on your list because these ideas are more of a jumping off point at some point in the future. When you’re stuck, start reading through your lists and you’ll be amazed at how your mind is able connect a totally unrelated idea/character/plot point to your current WIP.
Ok, so you’ve started your list. It will take awhile before it gets long enough to be really useful, but eventually it’ll be an important resource. Checking my list for a new idea is one of my first steps in creating a new world.
We’re going to talk about an upcoming adult urban fantasy I’m working on called Soulbound. It is based in a world I came up with a couple of years ago that I refer to as the Dominance Wars stories based on in-universe events.
How to build a unique paranormal world in 5 easy steps:
I always ask myself a series of questions when I’m building a world. If you answer these questions you’ll almost certainly have a clear direction to take your story when you’re done. The steps are going to generate a ton of notes and this is where the mind mapping and family tree building are going to come in handy as you work out the details.
- What is distinct about this world? (Is there magic? Magical creatures? An alternate reality?)
- What are the characteristics of your non human characters? (What do they look like, how do they breed, how do the humans react to them and vice versa, what are their powers?)
- What kind of character would have the most conflict in the world you’ve created? Congrats, you’ve just found your main character. Your main character should be someone who has the most to gain by challenging the system and the most to lose if they fail.
- What unique strengths (super powers or just special training) does your character have? Make sure that there are limitations to those powers. Every Superman needs to have ktryptonite. If you’re tempted to skip this step you are putting yourself in danger of writing a Mary Sue. Pro tip: if your character’s biggest flaw is being clumsy, you might want to reevaluate your character.
- Evaluate your character’s strengths and weaknesses and backstory and figure out how those things come into conflict with the “rules” of your newly created world. This is the skeleton of your plot.
So let’s take my mimic example and see how it breaks down.
- What is distinct about this world? This is a world where creatures we think of as being fairytale/magical/mythological are real and living among the human population. They saw an opportunity to try to get rid of humans while they were weakened by World War II and they organized world wide efforts to eradicate them in was later referred to as the Dominance Wars. They might have won, since Others tend to be far stronger than humes, but unfortunately for the Others the temptation to try to attack their distracted racial enemies was too strong. Humans were able to win the wars through superior numbers and are now control all the political power. This leads to a lot of racism and bitterness that bubbles just under the surface and makes for a very uneasy truce.
- What are the characteristics of your non human characters? I made all kinds of notes for the different races that will show up in my stories. Because this is an open ended world, anything goes, but I’m being careful only to write about 2 or 3 races per story that are relevant to that story. For my were-creatures, I did research about the different animals that my characters can change into to make their behavior and description of them when they are in animal form more believable.
- What kind of character would have the most conflict in the world you’ve created? In the course of outlining different creatures, I started making notes about how people become weres. In the DW universe, you can be infected with the Therian Virus through the transmission of fluids, including sex. That lead to the concept of a man who is tricked into infection and then abused by the very weres who engineered his transformation. As a result of those tragic actions he strikes out at innocents as a manifestation of his insane rage. Two of those innocents are Trevyn Smith and her husband.
Now it’s 10 years after the attack that left Trevyn’s husband dead and her identity changed forever and there’s no room in her life for anything but her career in the elite, human-only, Rogue Enforcement Department. The only problem is that the attack left her infected, something that she should have reported immediately. No longer eligible for human citizenship due to her were status, she’s been faking her way through annual blood tests and lying to everybody she knows. Her thirst for vengeance will cost her life if anyone ever finds out that she isn’t who she says she is.
- What unique strengths does your character have? Make sure that there are limitations to those powers. She has several powers. As far as non “super” powers are her fighting abilities and training for taking on Others. Due to her were nature she can assume the form of an ocelot, a big cat that’s about twice the size of a house cat. It’s unusual enough that being in that form will draw attention so that’s something she always has to consider. Also, her clothes don’t turn with her so she’s always got to know where to find clothes when she turns or she’ll be naked when she turns back.
Other were powers are enhanced senses and agility. In her cat form she has the powers of an ocelot, which isn’t as impressive as a lion or tiger would be, but still a pretty fierce opponent in a fight. Because she’s been exposed to the Therian Virus, being bit has no affect on her. Her healing is so fast that she has become immortal.
Now for weaknesses. For starters being a were in the DW world is the same as being a second class citizen. Humans fear and revile Others, but especially weres. The Therian Virus is 100% contagious and it’s around 97% fatal to humans. Trevyn put herself on the wrong side of the law when she didn’t report her infection, but she became at risk of being put to death when she lied about her human citizenship to join RED. So for her, a big weakness comes from the fact that her eyes aren’t human anymore. She has to wear specially made contact lenses at all times to cover for that.
She can’t have normal relationships with humans anymore. Having sex with a human will almost certainly result in their death. She could have sex with other weres but pack politics make that tricky. She can turn into her cat form at will, but it’s a lengthy, painful process. Every bone in her body breaks and reforms as she makes the change. And although she can go without a change most of the time, she’s moon bound and will change against her will on the nights that there is a full moon. She must always have an ironclad reason to be alone when the change comes upon her or else risk revealing her secret.
She’s also got considerable emotional baggage that she needs to overcome. She resents her were nature and resists it on every level. Also, just having a normal relationship with anybody, even just as a friend, will be a challenge for her. Which is just what we like in a protagonist.
- Evaluate your character’s strengths and weaknesses and backstory and figure out how those things come into conflict with the “rules” of your newly created world. This part is really cool. Almost like magic. This is where your sticky notes and poster board come into play. Write down these scene ideas and stick them to your board in no particular order. You’ll figure out the best way to sort them out later. This step is just about laying a foundation to work from.
Ok, so no woman is an island. I decided that Trevyn is not an only child. She has a sister. I decided that just for flavor I’d make them 1/16 siren. This doesn’t have much bearing on Trevyn, she can hold her breath a little longer underwater than most people and is an especially good swimmer, but nothing major. However, her twin sister has inherited the full powers of her great grandmother, which means that she’s actually considered a full siren and would test that way on a blood test if she ever gave anyone a reason to test her. Humans don’t really understand how Others work, especially when it comes to breeding with humes so they haven’t required mandatory blood tests of all citizens yet, but there are rumbles that it might be coming.
So she’s got a siren for a sister. Her sister is fine with this and actually exploits her sexual hold over men by working as a lounge singer and having reckless affairs with anyone who catches her eye. A practice that Trevyn doesn’t agree with.
For funsies, I decided that Trev’s dad is a racist. He isn’t exactly a lovable fellow.
Her husband was a were. A remarkable attribute of the magic that surrounds people who become infected with the Therian Virus is that if a were becomes soulbound to a human (soul mates), that human has immunity to the virus through sex. A human and were can even have a baby together, but the baby will almost always miscarry due to being infected by the virus, although there is a genetic link to surviving infection so those babies do have a higher chance than your average baby would.
So were husband has a living brother who survived the same attack as her husband and turned them both into weres. He understands her emotional distress at being turned against her will since it was the same for him. He took care of Trev in the year after her attack when she wasn’t able to control her blood craze and has helped her hide her were attributes from RED. Somewhere over the last decade he’s also fallen in love with her. Too bad she doesn’t feel the same about him.
Trev has a rookie partner who is totally inept at her job and promptly gets herself killed which necessitates a new, sexy, partner. A partner she can’t be with due to the fact that she might infect him.
She has the opportunity to confront the man who infected her and killed her husband. Now she has to decide whether to kill him or show mercy.
And so on…
So from those scenes we know that we’ll have scenes where the following happen:
* She interacts with her sister and they argue about their life choices
* She interacts with her parents and deals with her dad’s racism
* Scenes of her losing her first parter, getting her new partner, and being put on the case that will put her face to face with her attacker
* The scene where she confronts her attacker
* Scenes of relationship building between her and her BIL
* Scenes of relationship building between her and her partner
* Scenes that either flashback to, or address, the attack that changed her and left her husband dead
There are a ton more I can draw from just that stated information, but I’ll leave it at those because I don’t want to spoil the story for anybody. Also, because I’m privy to more information, I obviously have a lot more scenes that I’m not sharing here at this point. But you can see how you an turn the information you already have into the beginning of an outline.
You will basically turn every conflict, relationship, strength, and weakness into a scene. She can’t let anybody see her turn into a were, so it’s a given that I need to put her in a position where she’s in danger of being caught turning into a were and then figure out how she gets out of that situation. She has a racist dad so I need to write a scene where that comes into play and it somehow has a bearing on the plot… either he learns from his ways and it teaches her a moral lesson or he’s a total jerkass and a bad interaction between them prompts some sort of plot driving action.
One thing I haven’t addressed in the 5 steps is an antagonist. Every story needs at least one, although it doesn’t have to be a single physical entity. It could be someone versus the political system or a person versus the elements. If you do have a person as an antagonist, it helps to figure out their back story and run them through the steps too. You need to know what their strengths and limitations are.
This method won’t write the story for you. There is a lot of flexibility with it. You can keep the bare bones outline just like it is and figure out the specifics of each scene as you write. If you are like me and you need to know every detail before you start writing, then this is a wonderful place to start. Once you’ve plotted out a skeleton version, try to put them into an order that tells a powerful story (I recommend using the three act story structure from “Save the Cat!® Strikes Back: More Trouble for Screenwriters to Get into … and Out of” (Blake Snyder). It’s a screenwriting book, but you’ll be glad you read it, I promise). Now all you need to do is fill in the blanks. If one scene happens on a Tuesday in Vegas and the next happens on Thursday in New York, you need a scene between them that gets them on a plane.
Hopefully you found this little essay helpful. If you’d like to see these steps in action, you can pick up a copy of my book I Wish… the first book in the Witches of Desire trilogy exclusively at Amazon.
Leave a comment on my blog for a chance to win a free copy of I Wish and an upcoming collection of short stories based in the WoD universe. Just saying “hi” is enough. I’ll do a random number generator to determine the winner at the end of the month.
All she ever wanted was a chance to settle down in one place.
Thistle Nettlebottom knows her life isn’t exactly normal. She travels the country with her secretive mother and bestselling author grandmother in a pink RV going from book signings to crazy research trips. She’s never been to public school or had a boyfriend, but she can pick a lock and hotwire a car. One day the phone rings and they set a course to a tiny town that’s not on any maps. Suddenly, Thistle finds her whole life changing.
She’s finally found the home she’s been searching for.
Thistle soon realizes that Desire isn’t like other towns and she’s not like other girls. The family she trusted has lied to her about everything her entire life and the things she doesn’t know about herself could cost her everything. Her legacy as one of the most powerful witches the town has ever seen has made her enemies that have been waiting patiently for a chance to destroy her. Thistle needs to learn to use her powers to protect herself before they succeed.
Be careful what you wish for.
Thistle has a power unique even among the magic wielding witches of Desire. She can wish things into existence. At first she enjoys the freedom of having everything her heart desires, but she soon realizes that her power comes at a terrible price. She’s losing her grip on her sanity at a time when she can’t afford any weakness. Her enemies are closing in quickly, but she might not have the strength to save herself.
Be sure to visit Janie Franz’s blog tomorrow for the next stop on hop.
To learn more about the blog hop, check out the main site.