NaNoPreMo 2018, part 1: Setting

This series is about writing speculative fiction, so I’m going to think about setting first. Literary fiction is led by characters, and characters are enormously important in any storytelling, but the “speculative” part of spec fic tends to be around the setting.

Developing A Setting

It’s quite possible that you have an idea for a setting that you like. It could be as simple as “our world, but vampires are real” or as elaborate as Middle Earth*, but if you don’t have a firm idea then here is an exercise which might help.

First of all, make sure you time, a quiet space, and some mental energy. Doing this last thing at night after a skinful is not recommended. You want to be alert and rested.

Sit down with a piece of paper and the writing implement of your choice and then think about the kind of stories you want to tell and the kinds of things that make those stories unique. Do that for a few minutes.

Then write down words that describe the places those stories will happen.

This is a brainstorming exercise, and the trick with brainstorming is to not censor yourself. Write down whatever comes to mind and don’t criticise what you’ve written. It’s OK to read the words because they will probably spark more ideas to put on the page, but thinking negative thoughts about what you’ve written now won’t help you.

(think of this also as good practice for November. You’ll be writing freely without self-critical thoughts then, as well)

Once you’ve got some words down (however many you think is enough, but a dozen or two would be my target) then review them. Which ones pique your interest? Which ones inspire more ideas than the others? Which ones seem most awesome when combined?

Pull out the ones that speak to you most, and there’s your setting.

I would recommend spending a bit of time asking more questions about the elements you’ve picked. If you have vampires, are they Christian, Buddhist, or Shinto? Can they go out in daylight? How many of the Dracula myths apply? If you have starships, are they faster than light? How is that achieved? Can they be manually piloted? If you have a modern setting, is it the same as our world or different in significant ways?

And so on.

Example Brainstorm: Livia and the Corpuscles

Livia and the Corpuscles started as a brainstorming exercise on a whiteboard. The setting portion of this consisted of throwing a number of setting words up on the board:

  • The Future: in space? post-apocalyptic? dystopian?
  • The Present: Portland? Britain? the Amazon?
  • The Past: steampunk? Arthurian? Roman?
  • Somewhere Else: an alien world? alternate history? elves and goblins?

In this case, of course, I just picked Roman steampunk because it was too awesome to ignore.

Then I picked a few salient facts about the setting: it was a continuation of our Rome on another timeline; human slavery was abolished; the Republic had outposts on other continents.

Example Setting: Spores

Im not going to use Livia as a worked example, but I do want to have an example I can use in future pieces.

A few years ago I was preparing a roleplaying campaign called A New Dawn. When I was writing about that prep I invented a setting I never used for anything, a hot, post-human Earth where plants have awakened to predate upon large animal life:

humanity is in reduced circumstances: climate changes triggered by profligate fossil fuel combustion and misguided efforts to recover methane from deep water methyl hydrates have made temperatures climb; shifting water mass (melting ice and deeper seas) has changed the pressures on continental plates and triggered increased volcanic activity; the seas have risen and weather patterns have thrown agriculture into chaos. People live in sealed cities, or high in the mountains away from the plants.

Ah yes, the plants.

With the increased temperatures, plants have run rampant. Long-suppressed genes for ambulatory motion and other predatory behaviours have expressed, and the herbivorous biosphere is generally in the business of eliminating large animal life. Humans are still high on the food chain, but the top spots are taken by plants.

From this seething, super-evolving biomass emerges superhumans, people who through weird genetic accidents exhibit abnormal abilities: some are expressing long-suspected genes in human DNA, some are mixes of humans with animal or plant.

That setting was intended to provide a large scale playground for half a dozen player characters to romp around in. There needed to be scope for big fights but also intrigue.

For this example, I want to use this setting in a slightly smaller way, make it more personal.

Let’s start with a mountain village in this setting. It used to be bigger than it is: the population is not growing, and people are being lost to the plants and the transformation induced by sporeswarms.

This village does not accept the transformed. Those who change are shamed into leaving, or exiled.

This tells us several things:

  1. there must be some pretty strong social structures in place to force the changed to leave. Maybe there is a charismatic leader, or a strong religious tradition. The former makes the village more isolated, the latter makes it more part of a wider social structure where those exiled will not find sanctuary easily.
  2. there must be a barrier to keep the changed out, so maybe the village is set on a mountain-top with a drawbridge over a deep ravine, or has a substantial wall.
  3. the abilities the changed possess are not generally strong enough to get past this barrier.

I have more ideas here, as I’m sure you do too, but I will save more of those for the plot section.

This is Spores.

Next time I’ll look at constructing characters, because a setting on its own isn’t a story.

[*] which is cheating a little as an example because of course Tolkien developed Middle Earth before he had any stories in mind, but it’s a very elaborate world.

Leave a Reply