World Building Days Gone By


After a recent, especially helpful critique I was left with the impression I needed to mainly focus on two things. The first was moving a wrongly placed conflict. It didn’t surprise me. I had had a feeling about it myself, but justified it at the same time. The beauty of writing is the save as button. Nothing has to change forever. If I decide I like the original way better than the revised way, I can revert. But it’s always worth the try to do something that makes you a little uncomfortable, something you are not quite certain about. It may turn out to be magic.

The other big note is on world building. And admittedly, here is where I struggle. It’s historical fiction. And I’ve done A LOT of research on the time period and the events in my story.  How do I build this world of long ago without dumping all of this info onto the page? Then there’s the question of what do I do about the areas that are fuzzy?  The areas the research didn’t reveal? Do I fill in the gaps creatively or find a way around them?

My brain leads me to further research, but of a fun kind, for me. I got to reading.  Here are the seven things I’ve gleaned from the first three chapters of seven historical fictional novels. Hopefully it will lead me to build one vivid world.

The seven books I studied:

  • Paper Wishes (2016) by Lois Sepahban
  • Down the Rabbit Hole (2013) by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
  • Number the Stars (1989, oldish, but my favorite Newbery winner) by Lois Lowry
  • The War that Saved my Life (2015) by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
  • Worth (2004) by A. LaFaye
  • Dash (2014) by Kirby Larson
  • Fever 1793 (2000) by Laurie Halse Anderson

*Timeout for a plug. One of these lovely authors is the person who critiqued my first three chapters. Do yourself a favor and keep an eye on Kidlit College for opportunities to grow your craft. Ms. LaFaye empowered me to plunge back into a story that had become stale, helped me to see the good in it, and showed me where I needed to grow in a way that made me feel strengthened instead of diminished. Besides, hearing words like compelling piece and powerful story is a confidence boost that makes the baby seem a little less ugly. FYI the Novel Direct Contest is open until November 1, 2016. *

The good news is there’s no one way to do this. The bad news is there’s no one way to do this. So, more often than not, here is what I discovered.

  1. Five of the seven are written in first person. An advantage of this is keeping the movie camera super zoomed in and noticing only what the character would notice. Like in The War that Saved my Life, Ada had no idea there was a world war brewing outside of her flat because she was imprisoned in her home. A disadvantage of first person narratives is being unable to ever leak information to your reader that your protag wouldn’t know.
    • Mine is written in third-person limited. I think this is working for me, for now. Third-person limited is similar to first person in that the protag must be in every scene and only his thoughts and feelings are divulged, the others’ may be inferred. But I may play with first person. It seems easier for the reader to sink into the skin of the protag.
  2. The story is in the specifics. After completing my last rough draft, I read Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. She has an entire chapter called the story is in the specifics. But the specifics, the details, must have a story reason to be there, not just a cool piece of research I picked up and want to fit in. For example, in Number the Stars, the second chapter is nearly all back story, told through a bedtime story that led to a flashback, that delivers a vital theme of the story. A boy tells a Nazi soldier that all of Denmark is a bodyguard to the king. In the third chapter, Annemarie realizes that all of Denmark must also now be a bodyguard to the Jews.  wired
    • In Down the Rabbit Hole, Pringle is very keen to notice people’s fashion. Valuable story retail space is taken with details about the fashion of 1871. I doubt Susan Campbell Bartoletti chose emphasizing fashion over decor, for example, because it is what interested her. I’m sure there is a story reason. But only having read the opening pages, I have yet to discover if I’m right.
    • I have a lot of specific information I know from all of my research. But like Lisa Cron wrote, “The more details the writer gives us, the fewer we’ll remember, proving, once again, that as with most things in life, less is more.” If it doesn’t have a story reason, pitch it.
  3. Don’t just world build for the sake of painting the picture for your reader. There must be reason for it. For example, in The War that Saved my Life, Ada leaves her flat for the first time, ever. As a writer, I’d be tempted to tell of all the things she would be seeing for the first time as she’s walking with her brother to school and running away from her mother. But if Ada were a real person, and we treat our characters like they are, than in reality she wouldn’t notice these things around her. She was in such terrible pain from walking on her crippled foot that she had to crawl a block. At which point the reader learns about the trash and the mud that she must crawl through to escape.
    • What this means to me, is that I have to know my character so well to know what would stand out to him. How much do I pay attention to the color on my wall or the the way I sink into my couch? If it’s everyday to my character, he probably wouldn’t notice it either. And if there’s an emotionally or physically strenuous scene going on, he sure wouldn’t notice the crackling sounds of the wood in the fireplace. I know you have incredible talent at painting a beautiful picture. But state of mind of your protag and moving the story forward trump pretty words.
  4.  Historical information is weaved in organically. Very rarely does the story tell us off the bat the time period of the story. But we often quickly get the sense of time period. Consider the everyday items of today that were different then. In Worth we get clues through the necessary details of the story like using horses and a wagon to do the field work on the farm, or that Ma is a tinker. Her job has two layers of story reason, but it also puts us back in time. In Dash, while riding the bus Mitsi notices signs in stores saying, “We don’t serve Japs.” That’s more than a good piece of research. It’s a detail that is setting the stage for future scenes.
    • If I’m reading my critique correctly, this is what Ms. Lafaye referred to as double duty detail. Meaning it has a story reason to be there, but it’s also giving us a sense of the time or setting.
  5. Sometimes we have to get back matter in. This could be through a flash back, which reads like a scene, or by carefully placing in back story. But again, there must be story reason. (Note the example above from Number the Stars)
    • Example of back story from Paper Wishes: I pretend everything is normal and go to my room. Once, I shared my room with my sister, Keiko, and my brother, Ron. They are far away now, in India… Seeing something sparks a piece of backstory that is necessary for future scenes. But if it’s not necessary for upcoming story, then that piece of backstory can remain in your prewriting journal.
    • A flashback reads more like a scene. Here’s an example from Down the Rabbit Hole: I remember his voice crackled like static air before a storm. “Pringle, I have terrible news.” Yet I plunged ahead, unafraid. I was Alice, chasing the White Rabbit. “It’s Gideon,” I said.
    • Yes, my story has quite a bit of back matter that fuels future story pieces, but I have to be sure its revelation is triggered by something happening in the present and that its reason for being brought up is quickly revealed.
  6. We’ve got more than vision, so use the other senses when possible. In Worth, Nathaniel is trapped in his room with a broken leg, for weeks. He sees the same four walls 24/7. Imagine how bored he would be and we don’t want to bore the readers. Instead, his ears become his eyes. He can tell his dad is wearing his Sunday boots on Saturday by the way they sound and that has great story reason because that means dad is going somewhere important. Lisa Cron warns, “Unless they convey necessary information, sensory details clog a story’s arteries.”
    • I’m starting to get the meaning of advice I’ve heard at many conferences, every word must earns its position on the page. Every sensory detail must be informing the reader or else they will tune it out or worse, get bored and close the book.
  7. Does age matter? Only in Number the Stars is the specific age of the character revealed. In the other six, the reader is able to estimate the age based on how the character behaves and interacts with others. In reality, how often does age come up in real life? It’s not often on our mind, so it most likely wouldn’t be on your characters’ minds either. Yet, isn’t that one of the things we often ask in critique groups, how old is your character?

What do you think? How important is it to tell the age of your protag? Or maybe it’s better to show it.

Okay, I have six books to finish reading and an opening of a story to reshape. Lots to do. Always lots to do!

Happy writing!

Number the Stars

Number-the-StarsNumber the Stars by Lois Lowry is my all-time favorite children’s book ever!  It’s a historical fiction novel intended for an audience of 9-12 year old children.  It’s the story of Annemarie Johansen living in Copenhagen, Denmark during the Nazi occupation of World War II.  Her best friend, Ellen Rosen, is Jewish. When the story starts the Nazis stop merely standing ominously on street corners and prepare to relocate the Danish Jews.  The lives of the two girls are about to change drastically.  One will be forced to go into hiding while the other’s courage will be put to the test.

It is the winner of the 1990 Newbery Medal.  Though it rightfully received this award, it’s true accolades come from how it stands up to its toughest critics, children.  I have taught this book with two fourth grade and five fifth grade classes across a variety of ethnic groups and spanning the socio-economic bridge.  I have read this book with reluctant readers and avid readers.  The most challenging part of reading it was being told they weren’t allowed to read ahead!

Why children like it

The pace is quick.  The beginning of the story grabs hold of you and you don’t want to let go until the very last page.   The events of WWII are so unbelievable that the setting is both intriguing and mortifying.  The real stronghold is how relatable the characters are.  Annemarie and Ellen are very much like the children in the classroom, but are called to do extreme things.  And the themes of the story are the themes of most children’s lives: friendships put to the test, needing to be brave when it would be easier to run away, coming of age and learning the truth of the world around them.  I’ve had so many great conversations with my students because of the events in this book!

Through a writer’s eyes

Every time I have read this book I got something new from it.  And I’ve read it a lot!  (I am not one for rereading books, but this is a clear exception! – remember I’m a reformed reluctant reader).  This is a book that should be studied by every aspiring fiction writer.  It’s a study of doing it all right!  Characterization, plot, sub plot, intrigue, plot twists, symbolism, voice, show-don’t-tell.  What makes this an even more impressive feat is that the setting of this story, WWII, is one of the most written about topics.  What’s equally amazing is that it is all done in 132 pages!

Give Ms. Lowry a visit at and be sure to enjoy this book that I am glad was written!

Show, Don’t Tell, using Body Language

Non-verbal communication makes up the majority of how we express ourselves.  So easy in person.  Such a different beast when trying to make a story come to life on two dimensional pages. 

Body language is intended to communicate emotion in the story without TELLING the emotion.  During my reading of my rough draft and in my first rewrite, I find myself relying on some of the same body language over and over.  I am not sure how many times my characters shrug, nod, furrow their brow, and purse their lips.  SOMEBODY HELP ME!

Learning to write is certainly a steep curve!

Where to turn to first? Well, body language is about the body.  So let’s begin by thinking about body parts and what they can do.  Hair: bounces, falls in the eyes.  Eyebrows: lift, squeeze together, arch.  Lips: purse, curl, press, whistle, pucker.  Shoulders: sag, shrug, raise up to the ear.  Hands: clench, fidget, fold, tap.  Feet: stomp, tap, stand on tippy-toe, shuffle.  What about knees? ears? chest? arms? nose? neck? eyes? stomach? toes?

What else? Well, bodies move.  What are some common movements?  (Stories need to keep the action, so how can we keep our characters moving in non-redundant ways?) walk, sit, look, run.  A thesaurus is a good place to start, right?  But what about what movement implies?  A lean in – we are engaged, a step back – we are considering the big picture when making a decision, doodling – we are thinking, a hand to the forehead – we have forgotten something, annoyed with ourselves.

Writers are said to be voracious readers, keen observers, and compulsive writers.  So, alas, I must assign homework because I am surely not the expert on body language.  Ah! Dang! I said homework!

1.  Take your favorite book down from the shelf.  Skim for use of body language.  Record the author’s words and your incites in your journal.

  • “Papa suddenly crossed the room and put his arms around them both. He kissed the top of each head. . .” – nurturing, reassuring, parental, security
  • “The street soldiers were often young, sometimes ill at ease, and Annemarie remembered how the Giraffe had, for a moment let his harsh pose slip and had smiled at Kirsti.” – a pose can slip, someone can momentarily reveal their true self before wearing their mask once again.
  • “Mama put a hand on Papa’s arm.”  – concern, protective
  • “Annemarie relaxed her clenched fingers of her right hand, which still clutched Ellen’s necklace.  She looked down, and saw that she had imprinted the Star of David into her palm.”  Yes!  SO GOOD!  The picture is painted and I can sense how completely petrified Annemarie was and the relief she now feels.  Bonus- GREAT VERBS: clench, clutch, imprint!

2.  Go on a field trip.  Hooray!  Go to your favorite coffee house, mall, or to be really effective, somewhere similar to a scene in your book.  OBSERVE and RECORD body language.  What is it telling you?  If you can hear the dialogue, how does the body language extend the meaning of the words?

3.  Watch TV! (Didn’t you love it when the teacher said you could watch tv for homework, but then the let down, “Watch the State of the Union.”) Here I am telling you to watch “Lie to Me.”  It is a show that specializes on analyzing body language, especially facial.  Or watch a movie.  I am thinking about watching “Pursuit of Happiness” because my MC is always on the go.  Record the body language that stands out to you and what it communicates.

Sorry to have to give homework, but I have to do it too!  Think about how much our writing will improve if we actually do these things!

So Read! Observe! and Write!

Next time: Effective Dialogue

Til then, Enjoy Playing With Words

Bonus: Three websites I found (though there are certainly more out there).