Saturday, May 23, 2009

Deadlines...and World Building

I've just printed out and packaged not only the second book of my current contract (thus completing my obligation to my publisher) but I also printed and packaged the proposal (three chapters and a synopsis) for another book that my editor wants to pitch to the senior editor as the second of another two-book contract. So wish me luck!

I'm in a position where I don't want to continue forward with those two books without having agreed to a contract (when you start selling, you soon learn that you shouldn't waste too much time writing something that's not earning you money). So I'm thinking ahead to even proposals. The two contracted books are the first two books of a new series, Cooper Justice. The two proposals I just finished are also Cooper books, and the next three will be as well, to finish it out. So it's probably a good idea to get those last three proposals worked up to pitch a three-book contract next time so I'll know what I'll be doing with my next couple of years as a writer. ;)
After that, however, I haven't really decided what the next group of books will be about. I've created several fictional places within my story world that I can work with, however. And who knows? Before the Cooper Justice series, I may create even more.

Fantasy and Science Fiction authors are the ones best known for world-building, but a lot of writers build their own fictional worlds to play in. For me, I needed to create places where I had control of the terrain, the political structures, the histories and the current affairs of the places involved so that they would meet the needs of my particular stories. But once those places exist in my story world, I've enjoyed using them to give depth to my other stories.

In my book FORBIDDEN TERRITORY, I created the Alabama city of Borland, Alabama. Though I haven't revisited Borland, outside of mentions in the two books that completed the Forbidden trilogy, It's a place I can certainly go back to now if I want to. In the third Forbidden book, FORBIDDEN TOUCH, I introduced the Caribbean island of Mariposa, a tourist mecca with a seedy side, and the Central Asian republic of Kaziristan, a former Soviet satellite with a history of tribal unrest, Islamist terrorism and constant political volatility.

In COWBOY ALIBI, I created Trinity, Idaho and Canyon Creek, Wyoming. I revisit Canyon Creek in my January 2010 book, CASE FILE: CANYON CREEK, WYOMING. I may go back to Canyon Creek before all is said and done. Who knows?

In my upcoming February release, which is currently without a title but will probably be called CHICKASAW COUNTY...something, I introduce Sanselmo, a South American nation on the Caribbean coast that combines the oil resources and volatile political history of Venezuela with the terrorist threat of Columbia. A nascent democracy with a history of both right wing dictatorships and Marxist juntas that have nearly destroyed the country over the past fifty years, Sanselmo's elected government is in a deadly power struggle with a leftist rebel group called El Cambio, which once espoused democratic ideals when it was trying to overturn a brutal dictatorship but now has shown its own totalitarian instincts by opposing honest statesmen trying to build their country into a true liberal democracy. I also revisit Kaziristan as part of Sam Cooper's backstory.

Kaziristan also has a role in the backstory of former Marine officer Luke Cooper, the hero of the recently proposed third book in the Cooper Justice series. And Sanselmo and Kaziristan feature prominently in the proposed fourth book (and the island of Mariposa gets a mention as well).

Here are some things I've discovered about world building in contemporary, earth-bound fiction such as romantic suspense:

1) It's easier to create fictional countries in areas where national borders are constantly in flux.
Thus, Kaziristan is in the Central Asia, where many countries were part of the Soviet Union as recently as the 1980s, and where borders are constantly in dispute (see also Kashmir).

2) It's easier to create fictional countries in areas that are not immediately familiar to most readers.
Can you really be sure there's not an island in the Caribbean named Mariposa?

3) If you're going to create a nation in a more familiar areas, make it plausible.
I couldn't have made Sanselmo an oil-producing nation on the Caribbean coast of South America if a country like that (Venezuela) didn't exist already. And I couldn't have created a quasi-Marxist rebel group like El Cambio if terrorist groups like FARC (Columbia) and Shining Path (the Maoist rebel group in Peru) didn't make such a thing plausible for that part of the globe.

4) A corollary to #3: If you're going to create a city or town in a state that people have visited, make it plausible.
Trinity, Idaho is plausible, because I based it largely on a real town, Stanley, Idaho. I used real landmarks like the Sawtooth Mountains and Boise to ground it more in reality. Canyon Creek doesn't exist, either, but I placed it in the ranch country just east of Jackson Hole, where similar towns do exist. Likewise, Gossamer Ridge, Alabama, the setting of my February 2010 book, may be fictional, but it takes on characteristics of two towns in northeast Alabama that do exist: Guntersville, Alabama (which is the inspiration for Gossamer Lake) and Ft. Payne, Alabama (which supplies a lot of the geographical features for Gossamer Ridge, including its beautiful mountainous terrain. As I did with both Trinity and Canyon Creek, I grounded Gossamer Ridge in real places like Birmingham (where Sam Cooper commutes to work and parts of the story take place).

So, how about you? If you're a writer, how have you handled world-building? And if you're a reader, which fictional worlds (and their writer/creators) have had the most impact on you?

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