Thursday, June 10, 2010

Attack of the World Building Bunnies

(Or: A diversion on writing process)

So there I am, sleeping peacefully - or as close to it as this narcoleptic gets (kind of a drugged doze, usually) - and I get ambushed. This happens with disturbing frequency.

I know you're not supposed to admit you get ideas from dreams, but I do, often. What I don't get are plots, which means after the idea makes its appearance there's an incubation period of indeterminate length while the idea ferments and characters start lurking behind odd corners of grey matter waiting for their chance to ambush me. Occasionally they'll insist I tell their story without letting me know what the end is, but usually I have to pry it out of them. There are times when I wish for a crowbar, then I remember they live inside my skull, and the result of me applying a crowbar to that wouldn't be all that scenic.

Anyway. So I wake up with this haunting image and a data dump about this world and setting. It's SF mixed with steampunk, an accidental colony on a world that's a) orbiting a huge star close enough that the thing positively looms in the sky, b) has a moon that's also huge (it may actually be effectively a binary planetary system, but that's not entirely relevant) and in geostationary lock, c) has a ridiculously long rotation period, d) has an even more ridiculously long planetary year (as opposed to what the locals call a year), and e) the entire civilization has grown up from its origins during a solar eclipse. Oh, and the world is very volcanic. They use this as a power source, and live in perpetual twilight.

The image is glimmerings of a dark orange sun around the edges of shadow against the silhouette of Victorian-esque buildings. It comes with a sense that the whole place is doomed - Nightside is largely unexplored, cold, and people who explore there don't come back. It's relatively warm with the eclipse: full sunlight will be too hot for fragile humanity. And vulcanism is tearing the land apart.

All of this is quietly simmering somewhere in the back of my head, accumulating depth and history and waiting for the right character to emerge and to carry a story which I suspect will involve an apparently doomed battle to survive the combination of an increasingly hostile physical environment and a decadent cultural environment. And just to prove that the way I build stories is... interesting, I now have the titles of at least two books in this world: Twilight, and Nightside. It's going to be dark. I suspect 'lyrical' may creep in just from the feel of the place in my mind.

Yes, this is what passes for my process at the very beginnings. Whether this one goes anywhere will depend on whether a character emerges to carry the piece. It's a rather complex synergy for me, requiring any number of pieces to land in place. If/when they do, I have a story which will devour what I laughingly refer to as my spare time. Until then, I have an annoying itch in the back of my head and some odd mental imagery.

To those of our readers who write, how do your stories start? What is your 'seed' and how does it grow? To everyone - do you want to hear more of the progress of this particular seed as it happens? If so, are there any special requests? I can't make any guarantees - at this stage it's quite possible the whole thing will die - but I'll do my best to oblige.


C Kelsey said...

Kate -- Sounds like an awesome world for a story. Examples of how you might write it would be interesting. Also, I'm curious as to how your main character will appear.

As for me -- Yeah, I get ideas from dreams. I also get them from seemingly random thoughts. Yesterday I was driving home from work (takes about five minutes). My mind was working through various finances when it went off on the tangent on how a lot of rich people seem to not have problems because they can solve them with money. It's like money is a magical fix for them. BANG -- a story idea smacked me upside the head. What if magic was real, but it was controlled by money. The more money you had, literally the more magically powerful you were. What if governments, banking institutions, corporations, the financial markets -- were all mechanisms to increase the amount of money available to those in power and therefor increase their magical power? Then, when a financial collapse happened, and a country just started "printing money", the reason would be that they're trying to shore up a loss in magical power. Ideas, ideas, ideas... They hit so hard and so often that it hurts. :D

Anonymous said...

Kate, what a nasty and interesting world that would be! It could be anything from the main story problem (man against nature)to the backdrop for anything from political intrigue to romance.

C, that's an interesting premise as well. But as technology catches up with magic, does that devalue the currency?

C Kelsey said...

I don't know, matapam. It's still not fully developed yet. I have this image in my head of a guy who starts noticing weird things happening, like he rubs a $100.00 dollar bill with his thumb while grumping about the rain, and suddenly it's sunny. And it really opens the door for some of the conspiracy theories out there... If rich people have enough power to, say, cause a hurricane or a major earthquake.

Ellyll said...

I get some ideas from dreams. Some from just having a character pop into my head, doing something, and then I have to build a story around him/her.

I would very much like to hear more of the progress of this seed, if it winds up going somewhere. It sounds fascinating, and a lot of fun. :)

Megan Haskell said...

Wow - I would not want to live on that world. It definitely has potential for an interesting story though!

My ideas come from anywhere and everywhere. Sometimes I have a dream that resonates. Sometimes my husband tells me about one of his dreams that stirs an idea in my head. Sometimes it's a picture or an image or an incident on the train during my commute. I keep a little notebook with me so that I can write down the ideas when they hit, but most of them just fester there for awhile since I can only write one story at a time!

Anonymous said...

I usually start with a scene running in my head like a mini-movie. Then I have to build a story around it. This happens even with anthologies where a seed is supplied.

BTW, love the photo! My bunny, Bella, would approve.


Brendan said...

Sounds like some one has been chanelling Hellconia(but with a very original slant).

My problem with some of my dream ideas is that seems most important in a dream doesn't translate well into action in a story.  One dream I had had the main character walking optimistically(he was going somewhere and didn't care how long it took) down a stretch of beach that eternally stretched off into the distance.  While stuff actually 'happened' to other people, this was the only bit that really stuck with me.

Kate said...

Chris K,

The main characters (there's a strong romance subplot, I know that much) are beginning to crystallize, although I'm going to have to argue with him over his choice of name.

Personally, I go with Pratchett's theory of inspiration particles continually sleeting down until they hit a responsive mind.

And the money idea is way cool (says she who managed to build a world based on blood as currency - ruled by vamps, natch - but never got a functional story out of it)

Kate said...


I don't go looking for dark. Dark finds me. Even my light and fluffy has a strong element of dark.

More to the point... would printing more of it cause more magic to accumulate, or devalue it? I can just see the headlines. "Inflation is destroying magic!"

Kate said...

Chris K,

So it's a willpower + money = magic setup? Oh, the possibilities there are endless. The conspiracy theories wouldn't be theory in that world - although they'd probably end up cancelling each other out as all the mega-wealthy tried to eliminate each other and get themselves more power.

Kate said...


Scenes like that do that. The truly weird thing is when it's not just you.

I started telling Sarah about this one - grumbling, because I'm mid novel and work is - as always - feral, and she says, "That's my world from fifteen years ago." It's Pratchettian quantum (which should never, ever be confused with physics quantum), it is. There's no other explanation.

Kate said...


It's certainly an interesting world, but no, not somewhere you'd want to live. Or visit, for that matter. "Nice" doesn't seem to be in my writing style - there's a reason I joke that I have a hotline to bastard central.

Ideas certainly can and do come from everywhere. I think the festering process is essential: it gives you time to make the extra connections you need, possibly hook in a few orphaned ideas that weren't quite right where you started them (although I have so many of these I doubt I could ever find them all homes), and figure out how the whole shemozzle fits together - then work out how to present it so a reader thinks it's intricately plotted and carefully characterized. (I've found if you throw in enough "neat" stuff you'll find a way to tie it in later on and it makes the whole thing feel stronger and more real)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

My NORMAL process if for a character to show up and hang out in my head, looming, snoopy vulture style, till I give in and write them.

The book I just finished just core-dumped into my head one day after art class. No, the whole series did. And then it was like a file I needed to access before I could write.

Unfortunately The Brave And The Free seems to be same deal. Maybe I should write it while I'm sick. Less resistence.

Kate said...


Oh, yes. A strong scene can definitely kick something off.

I figured that since I'm being attacked by world-building bunnies, everyone here should be treated to attack bunnies :)

Kate said...


Nah. I never read it.

Dreams are usually rather allegorical, and I gather most people don't remember them all that well. I hit the jackpot on that, being narcoleptic and sliding imperceptibly between dream and wakefulness - as in I'll go from dreaming to mentally narrating a story.

Generally my "story" dreams involve vivid imagery and emotional states with a whole bunch of other info buried in my subconscious waiting for me to find a way to get at it.

Since your dreams don't seem to work that well for ideas for you, what does work?

Kate said...


It's when they start kibitzing with your other characters - or trotting over to someone else's world to say hello - that it gets... um... sanity challenging.

I usually get the world first then the characters, but like you I've had the core dump and the book that basically narrates itself as fast as I can manage to type it. That is a scary ride.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Kate, funny you should do this post. I did one a couple of days ago on my KRK blog about creative people and dreams.

There's also been some research into gamers and conscious control of dreams.

Synova said...

My dreams only seem like they have a plot when I'm in them. Once I wake up, even if I remember a dream very well, what I usually have is some strong imagery or a situation.

Like floating shark blimps that can locate people from the electrical impulses of their brains or a heroine who has had parts of her body replaced with a non-organic plastic black substance and hormonal issues associated with recovery.

Other story seeds are of the "Wow, that's stupid, I'd do it different," sort. TV shows are good for that. Unfortunately those don't come with a plot any more than the others do.

I wonder if writing world building vignettes to explore would more effectively lead to plot discovery than trying to come up with the plot first before writing.

Chris McMahon said...

The genesis of my stories really varies a lot. I guess for SF its usually an idea that spurs it, but not necessarily, sometimes its also character.

For other stories it can be a magic idea, some other cool attribute of a new universe, character. It might be an idea for one particular scene that the whole thing just wraps around.

I guess the only thing they have in common is that they are just that - a seed. I need to tease and prod and make them grow and take legs and ran about the place. Then get them into some sort of order that makes sense.

Fun tho:)

Kate said...


I suspect creative people dream differently, but I don't know of any research to that effect. Possibly creative people are just more in the habit of observing and recording what they remember of dreams.

I've certainly controlled my dreams as long as I remember. Complete with arguments with the dream and insisting that it was getting it wrong and it had bloody well better change - which it did.

Kate said...


Both of those are fascinating seeds and could go so many places. Where have some of them gone?

I'm asking because eventually you get so wrapped up in the story that you forget what started it - or at least I do.

Kate said...

Chris M,

I think that's pretty much it - regardless of where it comes from or what it is, it's a seed. It doesn't turn into a full-fledged story and bother other people until we work at it and make it grow.

Brendan said...


I do love those times when I am drowsy enough to nod off for just a moment and I do have some fun dreams. My problem is while I wake up enough to think to myself what a great dream it was, I usually doze off again before I can fix it properly in my memory and the next dream "overwrites" the old.

My stories tend to come from the stew of my unconsious. Sometimes I know exactly what the inspiration was and other times the idea comes in such a random way it is a mystery. My latest "ding" of inspiration came from reading the word "plenitude". Why? I have no idea.

Synova said...

Kate, the floating blimp sharks dream went as far as world building a prison colony where micro-organisms built coral trees made of sometimes valuable minerals that floated like ice bergs that would sometimes flip up and cut into a person which meant people got to wear really cool segmented armor and thigh high boots. I had some notion of intelligent beings living below them beaver lodge style. The plot got as far as the hero getting himself sent there to find his love but relativity effects meant he found her daughter or grand-daughter instead. But it started with a dream of myself and others running and hiding and hoping that the floating shark things couldn't detect the electricity in our brains. One of my uncles was in that dream for no reason I can even imagine.

The other dream had the body modification, a fire IIRC, and a kid I went to high school with for added bizarre factor. (Maybe the interesting dreams are the ones with obscure people randomly plucked from my past?)

It quickly morphed into Sapphire, see-through replacement body parts and nano-tech to turn those who didn't reject the mods into ship handlers and pilots. That became a not-very-good short story about a couple of kids who went to space and got separated because she could take the mods and he couldn't.

Then I found a Very Important Note to Myself that made no sense at all (which is undoubtedly why I made a point to write it down) but included the fact that in my dream the material had been black and not the blue sapphire and that actually went some interesting places as it turns out the reason that the Obsidian was abandoned in favor of the Sapphire version is that Obsidian nano-tech is catchy in limited circumstances and better than 90% of people die of it, which led to thoughts of a gray-goo war and the people now quarantined on a planet surface with a plague that eats metal any time someone digs some up.

That led to a first person present (a self-challenge) romantic short story with a Black Witch and a "dragon"; as well as a bit of plot development and a little more writing than I usually manage on a novel about a girl who ran away from her wealthy family and became a body-guard for a city ruler.

The Sapphire pilots and ship handlers have showed up a couple of other places in my wider universe as part of the scenery. They can tolerate vacuum and they live forever.

Those are the two dream-seeds I remember the best. Neither of them stayed very much like the dream.

Synova said...

Bah, third person present, not first. My bad. I realize I babbled on enough, and undoubtedly it makes no difference which it was, but I hate saying something that isn't right.