On Cultures: Religion and Holidays in Fantasy Fiction

Creating a fantasy world is challenging. In urban fantasy and other fantasy and science fiction genres, authors can rely on real religions, cultures, and holidays to add depth to a world. For those of us who choose to build a society from scratch, holidays and religions are often overlooked, cutting out a very important dynamic in the relationships between people of the same culture, as well as the relationships of people from differing cultures.

When I created the world hosting my Requiem for the Rift King series and The Fall of Erelith series, I had a lot of ideas relating to who my characters were and the society they lived in. In The Fall of Erelith, religion plays a huge role in the world and how people act and behave. Holidays, however, were something I didn’t pursue, not until later. When I thought about this, I came to one frightening conclusion:  I was apprehensive about including holidays in my fantasy world because I was afraid of offending people. Holidays are important to people and can bring out extreme opinions. It’s polarizing, and sometimes in a bad way. By including religion and holidays in my cultures, I had to be willing to face the potential fallout from fans and readers.

People care about their beliefs.

And it was for that reason I made a point to be very careful to include religion as an actual part of my fantasy world–not as a backdrop for extremist groups in the story or as an antagonist, but as something that impacts many characters on a daily basis. If real people care about their beliefs, fictional ones do as well.

Religion and its role in a society plays a huge part in how people think and grow. Holidays are a direct manifestation of people’s beliefs.

Sometimes, the lack of religion in a culture is the defining element of that culture. There are so many possibilities. Ignoring the impact of religion and holidays on a culture, I feel, is a mistake. I can’t tell you how to create a realistic culture that fits your world; culture, religion, and society is something that must be balanced. However, I’ll share how I approach creating a society and culture, complete with religions and the holidays birthed by the beliefs of people.

I begin the process by choosing a government type. Society and government are often closely tied together. For example, those who live within a junta will have beliefs surrounding the art of war. They may also have a religion relating to what happens to their souls after death. Consider the vikings; their belief system is closely tied to their war-like culture. The concept of Valhalla is a perfect example of how the culture of a people and its beliefs closely tie in with religion.

More peaceful regions and governments often have more benevolent beliefs. Theologies form their governments completely around their religions. By choosing the government type first, I can often look at a culture and figure out why that type of government works for them.

Then I consider what sort of religion matches with the culture. Piece by piece, a society is born.

Defining a religion is difficult; being honest, I do a great deal of research into real religions and I apply the theories and tenants of these religions to my fantasy creations. I don’t copy a religion from Earth, but I do look at the history of the religions of Earth and apply their development to my worlds.

It’s a very difficult line to walk. I want to create viable religions, but I want to respect the very real religions on Earth. This is part of why creating a fully-rounded culture is sometimes frightening for me. Have I delved too close to a real religion? I don’t want to offend people, but I want to tell stories with well-rounded societies. Once I began adding religions, holidays followed in its wake. People have holidays for many reasons. Some celebrate an event, such as a birthday. Christmas is the obvious example. While it’s a Christian holiday, other cultures have embraced some of the secular elements of the holiday. I considered that too. How would these holidays I’m creating impact those who don’t believe in the religion associated with the holiday? (And here is a key point: many holidays are associated with religious belief.)

When I create a culture, I determine the holidays based on the nature of the worshipers and people living there. A society heavily reliant on farming, for example, will have harvest holidays and planting holidays. These are causes for celebration–not necessarily religious in nature, but tied to their ethics, beliefs, and lifestyles.

When I’m creating a culture and functional society, I’m weaving a tapestry rather than identifying a single thread. Because of this, it’s one of the hardest pieces of worldbuilding for me to implement, as the beliefs of the people are truly what shape who my characters are. I’m not really creating a religion or a holiday, but rather a lifestyle.

And that, I feel, is why it’s worth the effort to create a culture complete with religion and holidays.

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Preparing a Novel for Publication – Preparation, Pre-orders, and Promotions, oh my!

Professional publication isn’t easy. Whether you’re traditionally published or self-publishing, you need to present yourself professionally. How your book looks, on the inside and out matters. How you promote your book also matters. Today, I’m going to walk you through how I, a self-publishing author, navigate the murky waters of publication while attempting to be as professional as I possibly can be.

I’m going to draw your attention to one important thing: If you act like a professional, treat yourself and others in a professional fashion, and treat your work like it is a professionally produced product, at the end of the day, you are a professional. It doesn’t matter if you spend $1,500 to produce a novel (like I do) or if you spend $0.00. Professionalism isn’t about budget. It’s about behavior, planning, and executing your publishing plans.

Having a budget helps, though.

I’m going to walk you through how I’ve been working on my upcoming novel, Winter Wolf, from start to finish, including tidbits and tips for a smooth release.

My Process:

  1. Outlining
  2. Drafting
  3. Editing
  4. Cover Art and back-of-cover copy
  5. Pre-Orders
  6. Promotions
  7. Formatting
  8. Publication

1: Outlining, 2: Drafting, 3: Editing

This is pretty self explanatory, so I’m not going to waste a lot of words on it and will instead jump straight to my unasked-for advice: Write your book, and make it as professional as you can. I hired two editors to help me whip Winter Wolf into shape. I’m working like some professional publishing houses do: the publication date is set when the book isn’t completed yet. Unless you are an experienced professional, do not do this. Deadlines like this are serious, and cannot be missed.

  • For most people, the pre-order and promotions phases will not begin until after the editing phase is completed. Your mileage may vary.
  • In this phase, professionalism is really important. Listen to your editors. Let them be picky. They’re improving your novel. Leave your ego at the front door, and always be polite.
  • If you aren’t using editors (not recommended!) then you should take extreme care and caution with your work. Use your word processor’s grammar checker, and confirm each and every rule. If you’re breaking a rule, you need to know the rule and why it’s acceptable to break it.
  • Use a synonym checker and master list of commonly misused words. Their and there are two different words! So are where, were, and ware.

Fun Fact: My outline for Winter Wolf was so detailed it was pretty much a first draft, which in turn makes the drafting and editing process much smoother. It took well over a week to completely detail the novel, make corrections, and do my developmental editing chores. As a result, the drafting and editing phase is well ahead of schedule.

4: Cover Art and Back-of-Cover Copy

Winter Wolf by RJ Blain This is the finished cover for my upcoming novel, Winter Wolf. Due to the importance of the cover art, I actually ordered the cover art from my artist, Chris Howard, in the very early stages of production. Once Chris started working on the cover, it took approximately a month to finish. The texting, commonly referred to as typography, was done independently with a different graphic designer.

A professional cover artist can help you create an attractive, compelling cover. But also remember that not all cover artists are graphic designers, and you want a graphic designer handling your typography.

Since the cover should tie to the novel, I did the back-of-cover blurb shortly after the cover art was completed. It took me about five hours to come up with my blurb, and I didn’t finalize it until I gauged the interest from some fans and readers.

Here’s the blurb I’m using:

The Hunted Wizard

When Nicole dabbled in the occult, she lost it all: Her voice, her family, and her name. Now on the run from the Inquisition, she must prove to herself—and the world—that not all wizards are too dangerous to let live.

The savage murder of a bookstore employee throws Nicole into the middle of Inquisition business, like it or not. Driven by her inability to save the young man’s life, she decides to hunt the killer on her own. Using forbidden magic to investigate the past, she learns that the murderer is in fact a disease that could kill the entire werewolf race.

Forced to choose between saving lives and preserving her own, Nicole embraces the magic that sent her into exile. Without werewolves, the power of the Inquisition would dwindle, and she could live without being hunted.

Nicole’s only hope for success lies in the hands of the werewolves she hates and the Inquisition she fears, but finding someone to trust is only the beginning of her problems. There are those who want to ensure that the werewolves go extinct and that the Inquisition falls.

But, if she fails to find a cure, her family—including her twin sister—will perish…

Why did I choose this blurb? I feel it has the important elements of a good blurb: It has a character who has a problem to solve. It tells a bit of what the story is about–but not too much. Finally, it hints at the consequences of the character’s failure, and what she gains should she succeed.

These are the types of blurbs that appeal to me, which is why I asked friends and fans for their opinions. I settled on this blurb because it resonates with me, and it’s also appealing to others who like the type of stories I write. That’s important–you want to write a blurb which attracts readers who enjoy the types of stories you write.

These were all marketing decisions, as the blurb is one of many weapons in my publication arsenal.

Tip: Professionals don’t insult the tastes of readers in their blurbs. The blurb is about the book, not you, your opinions, and whether or not you think books of whatever sub genre are boring. Exceptions may apply, especially in parody works.

5: Pre-order

Amazon recently opened pre-order functionality to self-publishing authors. Winter Wolf is my initial experience into the pre-ordering system. Here’s a very brief walkthrough of how it works from a writer’s perspective, and how to set it up:

1: Fill in the book data as normal.

However, this time, you have the option of marking a ‘finalized file’ or a ‘draft manuscript.’ For Winter Wolf, I am using a dummy manuscript of the approximate length of the actual book. The manuscript isn’t ready to be finalized, nor will it be ready until mid October. Most authors should not do this. I’m good at meeting my deadlines, and I’m experienced with doing so. If you are not the same way, absolutely do not start a pre-order unless you are 100% certain you can have the finalized manuscript ready on time. Amazon will ban those who fail to have their manuscripts ready from the pre-order system for one full year.

You do not want this.

Tip: Professionals meet their deadlines.

2: Select a date

Amazon and other pre-order services require the finalized manuscript two complete weeks prior to the novel’s official release date. Most services will ban you from pre-ordering if you fail to have the manuscript prepared on time. Yes, I’m repeating myself, but it’s really that important.

Buyers will be able to see your pre-order approximately 24 hours after submission, where they can click “pre-order” to buy the book. They’ll be charged for the book on the day of the novel’s release.

6: Promotions

Armed with your pre-order links, you can arrange any promotions you want without having the stress of doing a soft launch or needing to get links to your bloggers at the last minute. This is a huge relief, as someone who had to do this. My previous novel’s release was beyond hectic, as I didn’t have buy links until the last minute.

  • Research your promotion companies–there are great ones, and there are scams. Research, and don’t accept the first site you find as the final say. The hours you spend researching may save you a lot of grief and heartache later.
  • Many promotion firms require at least six to eight weeks to prepare for a tour or single-day blast promotion.
  • I’m using six different groups for promotion of Winter Wolf. I’m really proud of this novel, and I feel it is worth the investment.

Tips on Professionalism: When working with promotion groups, stay polite, if you’re asked for something, deal with it as soon as possible, and have patience. A single advertising campaign may take you hours to properly prepare.

7: Formatting

Sometime between the editing phase and the publication date, formatting the novel is necessary. You’ll need to format twice; once for the ARC, and once for the production copy. You may need to format three times, if you’re doing a print manuscript. From past experience, it takes me several hours to format a novel for publication, and I’m experienced enough to have streamlined the process.

  • The interior of your novel matters. Do it right. If you can’t, hire someone to do it right for you. If you don’t know how to do it right, learn–do not publish until you’ve mastered your formatting. Always check for errors if you’re converting files.
  • As with many things, plans included, ‘Keep it simple, stupid!’ applies–the simpler your formatting is, the less likely there will be problems over different devices.
  • My first formatting run is done a month prior to the novel’s release so I can send the book to reviewers. The second formatting run is for the finalized version, which will be done several days before my deadline for submission.

8: Publication

Two weeks prior to the official publication date, the finalized manuscript goes into all systems. At this stage, I’ll be completely done. On publication day, all I’ll have to do is sit back and watch.

That’s how my novel is being dealt with this time–a very drastic difference compared to how my other books were produced. This method won’t work for everyone. However, the basic principles of professionalism still apply, no matter how you approach completing your novel.

In short, these are the things I’d suggest to you if you want to carry yourself as a professional:

  1. Swallow your ego and correct your mistakes.
  2. Don’t argue with people helping you. Either use their advice or don’t, but listen and keep quiet unless you have a question.
  3. Always be polite–even if it means gaining a reputation of being old fashioned from saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ so much.
  4. If you can’t be kind to a reviewer of your book, don’t say a word.
  5. If you say you’ll do something, do it.
  6. Don’t miss your deadlines. (Excuses won’t get Amazon to overturn the 1 year ban from pre-ordering.)
  7. Edit your novel.
  8. Proofread your novel.
  9. Proofread your novel again. People are paying you for your book. You don’t want basic mistakes! (All books have them, just fix them when someone finds one.)
  10. Yet again, proofread your novel.

Good luck.

After the Writing: Producing a Novel for Publication

Inquisitor - RJ Blain - Small CoverI’ve been shamefully quiet on Today’s Author lately, although there has been a pretty good reason for it: I released my third novel on May 16, an urban fantasy thriller titled InquisitorMay 16 also happened to be my birthday. I’ll just say I was really busy. There’s a lot that goes into the production and finalization of a novel, and I’m going to give you the ins and outs of it. When you release your first book, I hope you have smooth sailing!

We all have different opinions on lists. Put aside yours for a moment. If you’re a fan of lists, rejoice. If not… you’ll need one. There is a lot that goes into producing a novel, and unless you’re a super genius who never forgets a single detail, you’ll want a list. More importantly, you’ll want to stick to the list. It really will help you release the best novel possible. To simplify things, I’m going to give you a very basic list of things needing to be done to prepare a book for e-book and createspace print editions. My personal list was about four times this long…

Initial Preparation

  1. Edit: Copy Edit – Proof Edit – Homonym List Check
  2. Cover Art: Acquire Image – Typography/Layout – Back of Book Blurb
  3. Format: Print Version – E-Book Version
  4. Promote: Paid Options – Free Options
  5. Edit: Homonym List Check Round Two
  6. Copyrights: To Purchase or Not to Purchase?
  7. ISBN: Amazon or Purchase?
  8. Distribution: Decide on Amazon, Draft2Digital, Createspace, Lightning Source, Lulu, KoboSmashwords, etc…

Editorial

Final rounds of editorial, even if you have hired a proofing editor, is never unwise. Editors are humans, and they make mistakes. However, once you have proofed your novel, you shouldn’t change anything unless it is a confirmed error and you triple check that you have not introduced a new error. Proceed with caution.

Do your homonym checks twice. There are many lists on the internet with the most common homonyms. Yank one, then confirm the usage of each one in your novel. You’ll probably still miss something, but at least you’ll clean up a lot of them. Homonym errors (they’re versus there) are among one of the most common types of mistakes found in ‘final’ versions of a novel.

P.S.: My complete check of homonym errors took me approximately 6 hours… but was so worth it.

Formatting, Cover Art, Copyrights, and the Nitty Gritty

If you’re self-publishing your novel, these are decisions you’ll have to make on your own. Do you create your own cover art? If so, make the cover look professional. Ask for help. If possible, license artwork. There are many cover art solutions you can acquire for $50 or less. Cover art can really increase your visibility–or damage the book’s chances for success. Covers do matter. As for Copyright and ISBNs, these are personal choices. But, I’ll tell you a very quick story…

I had a very bad incident with one of the self-publishing firms. They violated my copyright, and didn’t honor a request for removal. Without ownership of the legitimate copyright, I probably would have had a lot harder time getting them to adhere to my request for removal. Because I did own the copyright, I was able to send a letter stating as much. The company decided it was in their better interest to uphold their contractual obligations. I didn’t have to take it to court. That copyright paper is worth a lot, because when you have it, you have full control and power over your novel. I needed it, and was glad I had it.

Not everyone needs to own the full copyright. The book is still yours, and it is still copyrighted, even if you don’t pay up to have the official documentation. The documentation just makes it easier if something goes wrong.

Promotion

Paid promotion isn’t for everyone. It’s high risk, and it may not pay off at all. Free promotion, however, only costs you time. Simple ways you can promote for free include finding sites to write guest posts for, contacting book bloggers to get reviews written for your book, and making yourself visible on social networks.

Distribution

It’s ultimately up to you how you distribute your novel–take a look at all of your options. Then decide which choice is best for you and your book. Exclusive on amazon can be a great boost with the free book, countdown deals, and lending library promotion options. Smashwords and Draft2Digital can get you into a lot of venues with great ease.

Formats needed for Launch

  1. PDF: Print Version – Consumer Version
  2. Doc: e-book source version (amazon), e-book source version (smashwords)
  3. MOBI: Consumer Version
  4. ePub: Consumer Version
  5. ARC Versions of all types, excluding .doc
  6. Cover Art: Print version – Front Cover only

And finally… patience.

Releasing a quality novel isn’t easy. You want it now. You’re excited. But have patience. Take your time. It’s better to delay the book than it is to release something lackluster.

Take it from me–I learned this lesson on my first book, and it really isn’t worth walking in those shoes just for the sake of walking in them. If you can’t afford proofing editors, call in a lot of favors from your friends. If you can’t afford cover art, barter for some, twist arms, or ask for help on making a good one on your own.

There are always options, and many of them are free.

Good luck, writer.

May the odds be in your favor.

Turning Writing Goal Defeats into Victories

I’ve been hooing and humming over what to write in this space for two weeks. I had this awesome post written up at one point, and then my computer ate it. This made me think about failures, the nature of failures, and how it can destroy a writer’s hope of success and victory.

While this is more meant for writers, this can apply to anything you want to do with your life, be it find a new job, quit smoking, lose weight, or any other little (or big!) thing you want to do for yourself at the start of the year.

At three weeks into January, many people have already failed their New Year’s Resolutions. Some people set goals to write certain amounts of words today. Some plan to publish a novel during the year. I wanted to take 100 decent photos in January, but I haven’t even managed to get outside! Now, I have a good excuse, I get chilblains, and the temperature has been varying between cold and brutally cold – going outside to take photographs would be a death sentence for my feet. It doesn’t change the fact I’ve likely failed at my initial goal for January.

Let’s face it, New Year’s Resolutions are exercises in failure for a lot of people. Now, however, is a chance to turn resolution failures into goals and, ultimately, victory. Now is a time to reflect on what you really want, without the unnecessary pressure of a resolution guiding you in the wrong direction.

For me, I’ll be shoving my plan to take 100 photos in January. Instead, I’ll wait until the weather warms up a bit, and add all of the photos I should have taken but didn’t to my goals when I can go outside without harming my health.

Set One Goal at a Time

Unless you’re a veteran at making goals and finishing tasks, set one goal at a time. If you have too many goals and too many things needing done, the sense of being overwhelmed is a recipe for failure. Obviously, some goals (like taking 100 photographs in a month) stack well with other goals. It’s okay to stack a few goals like that together, if they’re small and won’t overwhelm you.

But large goals? Try to stick to one at a time, if you’re more used to defeat than victory.

Understand Your Limitations

Knowing yourself is key if you want to really succeed at a goal. Right now, you may not be very good at dedicating yourself to writing. You may have a short attention span. You might not believe in yourself right now. Write down your limitations. Make a list of the things that might stop you from accomplishing your goals.

Pick one of them, and make a goal to overcome that limit. Start small. Victory allows you to see the bright lining and reap the rewards of your hard work.

Failure makes it that much harder to pick yourself up and try again.

Set Realistic Goals

New Year’s Resolutions are often unreasonable, requiring someone to push themselves beyond their normal limits. Setting goals you can realistically manage is necessary to be victorious. Take a look at who you are, your work ethic, and what you want to accomplish.

Set a goal that allows you to strive for improvement, but also matches what you are currently capable of right now. Creating goals in anticipating of changing yourself is a recipe for failure. Creating goals that are already within your reach allows you to overcome the challenge you have set for yourself. Not only that, it gives you the opportunity to go beyond the basic minimum.

Victory is sweet. Exceeding the minimum requirement, and being able to look back at those accomplishments, is far sweeter still.

Every Day is a Chance to Start Fresh

Another trap I’ve seen with New Year’s Resolutions is that people view that one day as their lone chance to succeed at a year’s worth of things they want to accomplish.

Take that mentality, punch it in the nose, give it a pair of concrete boots, and toss it in the nearest deep body of water. Today is the day you pick a goal, sit down, and make it happen – or stand up and go for a walk around the block if you’re trying to make yourself a little healthier.

There’s nothing wrong with failing. But there is something wrong with not setting yourself up for the best chance at victory, each and every day.

Celebrate Your Victories

Don’t be afraid to reward yourself with something small when you accomplish a goal, even if it is a cup of nice coffee, a small piece of chocolate, or a pat on your own back.

You’ve accomplished something for yourself, and that’s always a good thing.

Good luck, and may 2014 be something more than a bunch of failed New Year’s Resolutions.

NaNoWriMo: Are you Coddling your Characters?

It’s October, and I’d hazard that approximately half of the NaNoWriMo population is currently plotting their novels, while the other half is snickering behind their hands over the fact that they aren’t doing anything at all to prep for their novels. There is a long-standing argument over whether or not plotting or pantsing is the way to go, and let’s face it, we all tend to think the other side of the coin is wrong.

But, we’re all in this together, and whether or not you plot now, or you work yourself into a frenzy plotting while you draft, you will likely have to ask yourself this question: Are you coddling your characters?

Excuse me while I duck and cover behind this couch. I can practically hear the screams of, “No! I torture my characters!”

Do you, really? Or do you just think you do? There is a big difference.

Inflicting temporary pain on a character is easy. Using torture for long-term infliction is easy, too. But, do you let your characters escape facing the consequences of their actions?

A lot of writers I’ve encountered forget to do this, and they lose a great opportunity to really torture their characters. It is one thing to hesitate for a moment, be it jumping out in traffic to get a kid out of harm’s way or doing something else that gets themselves or someone else hurt. It is a complete other to have the character make a choice, and then have that choice come back to bite them later. It’s a different sort of impact, when the characters reap what they sow.

It hurts more.

It cuts deeper.

So, how do you know whether or not you’re letting your characters pay the price for their actions? First, you need to track the decisions they’ve made that will bite them later. Then, you need to give the action a consequence that will really, really bother the character. Let them really experience the horrors of what they’ve done. It adds depth to the character, and an edge to your writing.

If you’re a plotter, consider a variable plot line to help you see how the consequences of actions pan out. I already wrote an article about this as a part of a prepping for NaNoWriMo series on my blog.

It is a bit more complicated than just tracking the consequences of actions, however. You need to keep an eye on how your character arcs fall, and how the decisions and actions of your characters drive your plot forward. Whether or not I write it down, I keep track of this stuff when I write. By juxtaposing plot lines and character arcs, it is possible to create round characters with a lot of depth, with plot lines that are a product of your characters and the world they live in.

Plots don’t happen to characters, after all. Your characters create the plot — even if the plot events are created by someone who isn’t present in a scene. Unless you’re working with environmental conflict points, someone out there is responsible for your plot events. Volcanoes don’t tend to erupt because of the actions of a person, which is why environmental conflict points fall outside of the scope of character-created plot points. However, global climate change can be attributed to humans, so you can include that as a character-created plot point.

The line is a little blurred. Play with it. That’s the nice thing about fiction. Present it well, and you can get away with anything.

Are you coddling your characters?

Don’t. You aren’t doing your characters justice, yourself justice as a writer, or your reader justice.

Let them face the consequences of their actions. Let them fall. Let them make mistakes. Let them learn from their mistakes. Let them fail. Let them endure, suffer, and grow stronger.

Heroes don’t need to always succeed, after all. They need to be strong enough to get back up when they fail. That’s what make them a hero. They don’t quit. They don’t give up. They may be broken and bruised, but they aren’t beaten.

And even when they are, they rise up from the ashes of their mistakes.

Let your characters face the consequences of your actions.

Your readers will thank you.

Worlds Defining Characters

I find it almost ironic that my first post on Today’s Author is on a subject near and dear to my heart: Building believable worlds.

However, it isn’t just the world I want to discuss, but the characters who live on them. The cultures of the world, the scope and expanse of a world are all important. How does a world define our characters? Earth has gone a long way to define us as a race. We are defined by the locations we live. Those of us who live near oceans or rivers have learned to fish. Those of us who live in the desert have adapted to the heat and the dry winds. Those of us who live where snow falls eight months out of the year have adapted to the cold. Our cultures are defined by the world we live in, whether we like it or not.

Imaginary Places, Imaginary Friends…

I’m not going to talk about the real world. I’m going to talk about Alskoran, a world of my own creation, the world depicted in the map at the top of this post*. (Yes, I drew it. More on that later.)

Alskorans is a continent divided by conflicting cultures and people. It doesn’t look that way from this view. It just looks like a bunch of lines defining where people live. Surely that can’t make that much of a difference, can it?

It can, and it does. I’d like to call your attention to three places on the map. You can’t see it from this angle, but take a look at the Rift. If you were to consider the real world compared to mine, the Rift is like the big brother of the Grand Canyon. The really big brother of the Grand Canyon. So big, it takes the best horses in the world more than two weeks to navigate the canyon trails to go from the top to the bottom. It is a dry, hostile place, with a great river cutting through the depths of the ravines. Danar, to its north, is a desert wasteland. He who controls water controls life.

These two places have drastically different cultures. The people of the Rift live and die by the quality of their sturdy horses and their skills riding them. The river offers them life, and it may as well be a God to them, because they don’t believe in Gods. Life and death are constantly at battle with one another, and the people have evolved to handle this fight very well. The Danarites, on the other hand, have a very strong belief system. Their Goddess provides water, and water means life or death to them.

The people of these two locations, although very close to each other in geographic terms, are drastically different. Horses are rare to the Danarites. The Rifters are the premier horsemen of the continent. The Danarites live in a place similar to Death Valley on the west coast. Horses can’t really survive there. The ones that do survive belong only to the elite, because they’re the only ones who can afford to water them. Without horses, their trade is limited. In Danar, they are a self-sufficient people, suspicious of anyone who isn’t them. The Rifters live in an equally harsh terrain, but in the depths of their canyons, there are grasslands and fodder for their beloved horses.

All of these things are due to where they live.

Then there is Kelsh, which is to the east of the Rift and south and east to Danar. Unlike Danar, it is a fertile land, with forests and lush farmlands.

Resources are at the root of the ongoing conflicts between Danar and Kelsh. No one remembers what triggered the ongoing feud between the peoples of the two regions, but the conflicts have developed to a point it is almost genetic in nature.

Their cultures have evolved to account for this ongoing dispute.

Location, Location, Location…

Location plays a huge part in defining culture. Whether you’re building a fantasy or science fiction world, understand how the location of your people changes the culture of your people. If you want a people to behave in a certain way, you need to account for that in their lifestyle. Cultures are formed because of necessity. Cultures evolve for many reasons, including an easing of lifestyle, luxuries, and religion. Trade can change cultures, as the people learn about how other people do things. Immigration really changes things. There is a reason America and Canada are referred to as mixing posts and salads in the cultural community. When you put a bunch of different cultural groups together, the lines separating the cultures will eventually blur.

So, how do you build a realistic world, a realistic people, and a realistic culture?

Start with understanding the world your characters live in. Your setting shouldn’t just be a place your characters stand on as they do the things they need to do. The best stories include the world as a character. Sure, the world doesn’t (often) have lines, but it’s always there. It’s a huge factor in the behavior of your real characters. Yet, time and time again, I read books where the world is nothing more than a cardboard cut out. It’s left with no depth, no realism, and no vibrancy.

Understanding Your World

If you want to build strong characters, start by building a strong, vibrant world. Even if your story takes place on Earth.

What? That doesn’t make sense! I can almost hear the questions now: Why do I need to develop Earth? We all live here! We know what living on Earth is like! That’s a waste of my time.

It’s not. Seriously. It’s not. Unless every story you ever write takes place in your home town featuring people you know, you need to research. If you live in Manhattan and want to write about someone living in Boston, you better do your research. New Yorkers are used to streets that make sense. Bostonites? They can navigate their way through a rubberband ball. They have to. Their streets are more convoluted than the typical mirror maze. I’ve been there once as a driver, and the idea of going back scares the liver out of me.

Boston’s confusing roads have become a part of their culture. The people have adapted to them. If you’re writing about Boston, and you’re from New York, you may forget this tiny little detail that impacts the life of a person from Boston on a daily basis.

Boston grew in a different way than New York. That history has stuck with the people of Boston. It has defined a different culture than its southern neighbor. Boston and New York, while both American Cities, are nothing like each other. I’ve had the pleasure of being guests of both cities, and how much they differ is absolutely amazing to me.

If you want to write about Earth, you need to know what you’re writing. You don’t just need to know the modern setting, but the history of the setting as well. It really makes a big difference on making the city feel alive. To making your setting feel real.

To skip across the ocean for a moment, this is one thing JK Rowling got right with her Harry Potter series: She made England feel real. She gave it a history. She gave it a culture. Then, she changed it up on us. She made it a place easy to imagine, easy to relate to, and then she gave it a feel of England.

That takes a great deal of skill. To write in such a way where a setting feels nature, a writer has to understand the location and its impact on the people living there.

Your setting is a character, and it’s one of the most important characters you have. You develop your living, breathing human characters (or non-human, as the case may be) but many don’t take the time to really understand the world their characters are from.

Sure, you may have an idea for the type of character you want to create, but how did that person become the type of person they are? A person born and raised as a slave isn’t going to take to independent thought easily. It’s nurtured for them to be anything but independent, self-reliant, and bold. Someone who was taken to be a slave in the middle of their lives is a different story. Understand how your culture and world will develop your characters.

If you need a real-life example of this, consider North America versus China. The way Americans and Chinese view the world is completely different. A good first step is to study real cultures, real people, and identify why the stereotypes of these cultural groups exists. Then, use it to your advantage.

Bringing a World to Life

The hardest part is bringing a world to life. Ironically, you do this through your characters and their interaction with the world. Just as the world defines the characters, the characters in turn define the world. For example, a culture with high water needs may build a dam. This changes the nature of the world around them, while the changes to the world also change how the characters react to each other, trade, and so on.

We can argue about the chicken vs egg situation all day long, but one simple fact remains: A great book has both characters and setting.

After all, we don’t just call Tolkien’s work “The Lord of the Rings.” No, we imagine ourselves as revisiting Middle Earth.

And Middle Earth is more than just the people. It’s about the places. What would The Lord of the Rings be without Mount Doom? Without Mordor? Without The Shire? Each of these places has culture unique to them, and that’s a huge part of why so many of us love Tolkien’s novels. We’re not just told about places, we’re taken there.

When you start writing your book, or even as you continue it, don’t just think of your setting as a cardboard cut out. Instead, view it as your most important character: The character who defines the lives, the motivations, the traits, and the customs of all of your key players.

Your world may not have lines, but it plays one of the leading roles.

* A Side Note about Maps: I draw maps, including cultural boundaries, kingdom lines, and terrain types as a way to help me define my world. This exercise is important to my process, though I don’t expect many people take it to quite the extremes I do. It does help me make my cultures feel a little more authentic, however. And it helps me see what characters see when they look at a map.