An Exercise in Confidence

I apologize for my silence over the past two weeks; that strange combination of business and laziness that tends to hit at the end of the year overtook me for some time. But now I’m back, looking forward to the blog in the new year.

I’d prefer not to name names, but a few days ago a friend asked me to read a short selection from a book by a fantasy writer whose name I have heard but whose books I’ve never read. If you’re confused, it’s the author and not the friend who I’d like to avoid naming.

After reading the selection, I advised my friend never to read something by that author again—to his chagrin. When I told him that the author’s style left much to be desired and that life’s too short to waste time on bad books, the look he gave me said, “Yeah, but he’s been published. Many times. How ‘bout you?”

He’s got me there, but that only matters if you think that only good authors get published. Before they disappear entirely, go walk through the fantasy fiction aisle at your local Barnes & Noble—or, better yet, your local library. Pick a few things at random and read paragraphs from them. You might be surprised at how many make you (honestly) say, “I could do better than that.”

To be fair, no writer is “on” all the time, and even great writers can write bad books (they just do so less frequently than the rest of us). Nevertheless, I think that one can often discern between “could be good but isn’t here” and “please stop writing things.”

Regardless of caveats and fairness (because, hey, the whole writing industry isn’t fair in who gets picked up and published and who does not), the encounter above with my friend gave me an idea. In trying to convince my friend of the author’s poor style, I picked one of his sentences, read it, and then gave my “improved” version (which could have been further improved, but I stand by my assertion that it was better than the published sentence).

That’s where my idea comes in. When I was in law school, K wanted to watch some legal sitcoms. I had trouble with how inaccurate they were until I decided to make a game and study tool out of them. I would watch alongside her and point out the inaccuracies, explaining how things should have been done accurately. While this might have put a strain on our relationship (at least with regards to watching TV), it did prove helpful in honing my legal skills.

All writers need to practice editing, and why not boost your confidence while you’re at it? Here’s the exercise: take a book you think is written poorly, select a passage from it, and rewrite the passage. For bonus points, put the original and your version side by side and see which one your friends think is better. If you’re successful there, try moving to better authors and continuing to use your friends as guinea pigs.

If you become confident with that, try moving beyond the technicalities of syntax and structure to playing with the art of style. Take a passage from a good book and rewrite it as if it were in a different genre or a different point of view.

I do firmly believe that life is too short to waste our time reading bad books. But if we can learn something from a bad book? Well, that’s something entirely different.

Learning for Science! (Or Worldbuilding)

In one of my previous posts (“Worldbuilding – An Education”) I talked about the value of the worldbuilding hobby for expanding one’s educational goals and accomplishments. This time, I’m going to approach the same topic from the other side–how learning helps your worldbuilding. In particular, I want to share some resources that have been helpful to me in my own practice of the pursuit.

As you know, most of my worldbuilding is done for the purpose of creating settings for my speculative fiction (or, less frequently, for roleplaying games). I’d like to pause for a moment for a brief confession: learning for the purpose of gaining knowledge and tools for worldbuilding is something of a safety net for my productivity. Writing is almost always difficult (sometimes the words come easy, but making them say something worth saying in a way that holds attention is far from automatic) and often frustrating. As much as I enjoy it (and feel called to it), writing is often work.

There are many things that I like to do that are not work. Exercising (though it’s only slightly less difficult than writing–particularly running), reading, building things, watching TV, listening to music, pretending I can draw, and–especially–video games (even though Jane McGonigal would not entirely agree that video games are not work of a sort, and I agree). When writing becomes difficult, the seductive call of things that do not feel like work becomes ever more powerful, and discipline in writing is, for me at least, a difficult thing to maintain as it is. So, when I give in to temptation to mindlessly play video games, find some project around the house to help me procrastinate or otherwise avoid what I feel like I should really be doing, I play an audiobook. That way, I’m at least learning something that will be useful to me when I sit back down to write. A lot of what I have to offer in this post are things I’ve come across during that liminal state of wishing I was writing but lacking the motivation to actually be writing.

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History

I’ve mentioned Dan Carlin several times in various posts on the blog, but it can’t hurt to bring him up one more time. His Hardcore History series covers many topics throughout human history from the 20th century to the very early historical period. A worldbuilder must be a student of history. Fiction is, in some ways, simply created dramatic history. This is often on the personal level, but the fantasy genre also often thrusts its characters into world-shaking events of epic importance. To do that well, or to create a setting that supports any kind of fantasy story, you need to be able to have a general sense for the flow of history–that is how one event influences and shapes those that follow–and for communicating the feeling of history; that is, giving the reader a sense of what it is to be alive and in the culture and history of the setting.

Dan Carlin is an excellent historian in general I think (though he doesn’t describe himself as such). Where he really shines is in communicating the feeling of history. When you listen to one of Carlin’s series, he takes the time to ask the questions and give the descriptions that invite you to imaginatively and emotionally participate in the events discussed. So, I’d recommend him both for the substance of his histories and for his method of historiography. Carlin gives us an example of how to think about histories–real or fictitious–in ways that bring them to life.

Great Courses

I love the Great Courses series (; also available through and Amazon). This is partially just because I’d be a perpetual student if I could be. Nevertheless, the breadth and scope of courses offered by The Great Courses company allows you to target specific points in history or culture (or science or politics and many other subjects for that matter) and delve deeply into that subject–for tens of hours.

If you’re not familiar, the Great Courses are essentially recorded undergraduate classes comprised of 30-45 minute lectures prepared and given by some of the foremost professors in the higher education systems of the Western world.

Here are a few courses I’ve personally found useful (your mileage may vary, as they say):

“Buddhism” by Prof. Malcolm David Eckel

“Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World” by Prof. Glenn S. Holland

“Espionage and Covert Operations: A Global History” by Prof. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius

“The Italian Renaissance” by Prof. Kenneth R. Bartlett

“The Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Rise of Nations” by Prof. Andrew C. Fix

“The Late Middle Ages” by Prof. Philip Daileader

“The Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity” by Prof. Kenneth W. Harl

“The Medieval World” by Prof. Dorsey Armstrong

“Medieval Heroines in History and Legend” by Prof. Bonnie Wheeler

“The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World” by Prof. Robert Garland

As a note: I have a master’s degree in medieval and renaissance literature and my B.A. in History also focused on that time span, and yet I always gain something new and fascinating in these courses. Knowledge is funny that way, I guess.

Curiosity Stream

Curiosity Stream is a subscription, on-demand service like Netflix except that it is only for documentaries. Feeling lazy and want to veg while watching TV? Here’s your excuse to do so and still like your making some progress on your worldbuilding.

The best part of Curiosity Stream is the source of many of its documentaries–BBC and Sky from the UK and various subtitled or dubbed documentaries from the rest of Europe. This gives you access to docs you won’t find on Netflix or Amazon Prime (the selections on which I often find disappointing) and gives you a look at topics from other than an American worldview (this, also, is essential for good worldbuilding–your cultures must stand on their own, not as representations, modifications or critiques of your own culture).

Worldbuilding Books

To be honest, there are few worldbuilding books that seem worth the investment of time once I’ve gone through them. Some are just too generic and obvious to be helpful; others want you to dive so deeply into things like plate tectonics and the albedo of your planet that (unless you’re writing something where such details are important to setting or story–I’m looking at you, hard sci-fi) you’ll end up wasting hours making calculations that (if you’re like me) probably end up wrong and that you’ll forget and never use anyway. Still, you do need to be able to avoid (or, I suppose, willing to ignore) glaring mistakes in the creation of a world that will distract its visits from the willing suspension of disbelief.

One example–rivers tend to converge; they do not tend to (but on rare occasions do) split into multiple major waterways (with the occasional exception of the river delta, though that’s different, I’d say). Maps or geographic descriptions that do not follow real-world data (and that do not have some sort of in-setting explanation for the variance) will annoy those with the specialized knowledge to point out the error and may even unsettle others who have a sense that something doesn’t add up even if they can’t put their finger on it.

Most of us do not have the time to become intimately familiar and comfortable with such diverse fields as geography, geology, planetary physics, ecology and biology, etc. Having a worldbuilding book that helps manage some of these issues can be a great time-saver (and an interesting read).

I only have two recommendations in this category that I’m really comfortable making:

The Planet Construction Kit, by Mark Rosenfelder. This is a great book for negotiating some of the larger scientific issues if you need to create a whole planet or want your setting to be that detailed.

Holly Lisle’s Create a Culture Clinic. This book outlines many aspects of culture that a worldbuilder might want to define, along with some writing exercises to bring that information into narrative form. I won’t say that this book alone is going to inspire you to create a culture, but it is very good at asking the questions you ought to ask while building a culture.

Both Rosenfelder and Lisle have a number of other books on worldbuilding (and language construction, if you’re into that sort of thing) available, but the two above are the only ones I would say should definitely sit on a worldbuilder’s bookshelf (or in the memory of her Kindle or iPad or whatever).

PBS’s SpaceTime Series

This is a recent discovery for me. It’s a show viewable on YouTube (without any subscription) that tackles advanced physics questions in ways understandable to a lay audience. If you’re into hard-science settings (or at least high-plausibility in your sci-fi), there’s a wealth of information here on how to accurate depict artificial gravity (using centrifugal force at the proper radius and rotation speed to achieve 1G while minimizing the Coriolis effect), the feasibility of various sublight and FTL drives, etc.

Have you, dear readers, found some valuable fonts of knowledge and learning that have helped you in your own worldbuilding? Please share through a comment!



Worldbuilding: An Education

Before I went to law school, many people (all lawyers, so understand the bias) told me that formal legal training is the best education you can get, regardless of whether you practice law. Law school was an excellent education; one that I’d never wish on anyone.

Still, I think that there is a better education to be found in the world—particularly with the availability of the internet, e-books (free through your library) and other high-speed, low-drag materials. That education is the art and practice of building fantastic worlds.

For me, most of the things that stick best with me are the things I learned for myself, through my own motivation, initiative and follow-through. This likely has something to do with increased investment and meaning in the subject matter because of the intrinsic motivation to study it, but the reason why the subjects I seek out to study seem to be better retained don’t really matter. I do believe, though, that we live in an age where, with resolve and resourcefulness, one can learn almost anything without setting foot in a classroom. Snorre, our exchange student last year, learned to play guitar by watching YouTube; by the end of his stay he could play Hendrix, Zeppelin and B.B. King.

Worldbuilding has become a more mainstream (though not really mainstream) hobby in recent decades. This has to do in part with the internet allowing people with similar interests to easily find one another, the increase in popularity in roleplaying games (probably the greatest single motivator of worldbuilders), the move of the fantasy and sci-fi genres into mainstream culture and, as I’m doing here, the relative modern ease of getting your ideas and creations to the world.

For many, as for myself, worldbuilding started as a means to an end—I wanted a setting to write stories in and to run my roleplaying games in (although I’ve found that, since the two mediums have broadly different goals, the same setting isn’t necessarily suitable for both). Once you start, however, the seduction of creation for its own delight may easily take over. There are some who will admit that they build worlds simply because they love the creation of fantastic peoples and places; these are an honest bunch who probably derive the most pleasure from worldbuilding, enjoying the thing for what it is.

But this post isn’t about how to derive pleasure from worldbuilding (although, with all the writing that is done nowadays on the subject, why does no one talk about this?); it’s about the education worldbuilding gives you.

Quite simply, building a world requires some knowledge of everything. You need at least passable understanding of language, culture, religion, history, geography and cartography, psychology, mythology and folklore and the sciences to create a world for which people are willing to suspend disbelief. Start there, and you’ll quickly find the things you’re really interested in. For me, it’s history, literature, legend, religion and historical occult beliefs (things which, conveniently—or perhaps causally—I studied formally); these are the subject about which you will seek to become something of an expert to make your world “stand out.”

Then there are all the beautiful rabbit trails of things that you could probably fudge and have a reasonably believable fantasy world but which add much to the world if they’re well-incorporated: astronomy, anthropology, archeology, warfare and military history, the attributes of fringe social groups, specific interesting human histories, the art of writing itself, the geo-sciences (including advanced geography, weather and climatology and much more), technology and almost other possible realm of human knowledge.

If you catch the bug to build a world of your own, you’ll find yourself asking many questions that spur research: Why does this sort of thing happen? How does this work? What would this kind of society be like? How would this event change the world? Or, as I found myself asking this morning: Where is it that swamps usually form?

The task in and of itself is a daunting one—not simply because of its scope, but also because of the thorough and excellent work that others are doing and displaying on the internet. The real bugbear, of course, is Tolkien, who has caused us to mistakenly believe that a created world is only a good one if we have invented and codified each of the world’s languages, written down detailed histories of all of the peoples (the History of Middle Earth edited by Tolkien’s son is twelve volumes) and that everything must be clearly defined and described in writing for posterity. We have to keep in mind that, realistically, Tolkien was a worldbuilder for worldbuilding’s sake; his stories, though beloved, were derivative of his worldbuilding. He did not build Middle-Earth so that he could publish books.

If, like Tolkien, our worldbuilding is really for our own pleasure, it can be as detailed or shallow as we like, as fanciful or as serious and deeply believable (for fantasy, of course) as suits us. We can write as much or as little of it down as we want to keep and share. All the extra work of cataloguing and consigning to words our creation is optional. We need only go so far if (1) we enjoy doing so or (2) we have a specific use for the created world that would benefit from writing down its details for later reference.

Given that, anyone can be a worldbuilder without an over-investment of time and energy. You can craft your world while driving in the car, standing in line, waiting for something, working out or doing all manner of other thing. If you don’t want to write it down, worldbuilding is simply an advanced game of “What if?” you play in your head.

Most of the greatest advice I’ve ever received in my life I got as an off-hand statement from someone else, probably because that person had so incorporated the idea into his mindset that it seemed too obvious to need special attention called to it. While studying medieval and Renaissance literature at UT Austin, Professor Frank Wigham advise his class to “be interested in everything.” I’ve tried to follow this advice since and have found that the pursuit of some knowledge of as many subjects as I can manage has thoroughly enriched my mental life—for the knowledge of itself, for the new ways in how I see the interrelation of things and ideas and for the strange ways an understanding of one subject helps one to think about other subjects.

This is the reason I recommend the hobby of worldbuilding to everyone; the practice gives you some tangible reward for taking in interest in all aspects of existence. If you haven’t done it before, give it a try. This time next week you might be spending hours following rabbit trails through Wikipedia as you research little-known cultures and peoples (look up the women-warriors of Dahomey, for instance), visiting the library (in person or electronically) to find deeper and more nuanced sources than what you get from the internet, imagining places for you to play in imaginatively for years to come. You will become interested in everything, and better for it.