In my writing guide Terra Incognito: A Guide to Building the Worlds of Your Imagination (now on sale from StarWarp Concepts), I take readers through the process of constructing a fantasy world from a blank piece of paper. We build and populate the lands, determine the various ethnicities, divide them into countries and tribes, and determine their forms of government, religions, and monetary systems. We also create the cosmology of the world and its surrounding neighbors, and demonstrate how it influences the creation of the calendar in use on the island continent of Aviones.
Many of you may wonder how practical this advice is. Well, to give you a real-world example, let me tell you about the process I went through for Musa Publishing.
In June 2012, Celina Summers, the editor of Penumbra—the magazine in which the articles that comprise the majority of Terra Incognito first appeared—approached me with the concept of creating a shared steampunk-genre world that could be the basis for a new line of novels and novellas. At first, it seemed a little overwhelming—after all, it’s one thing to develop a world for my own personal vision, but it’s another to create a world that anyone could use to develop a story. After taking a few deep breaths, I sat down and began brainstorming some directions in which I could go.
While I’m no expert on steampunk, I know several people who are, and based on their feedback, I realized there are no absolute rules for the genre. It’s incredibly flexible, which is where I see the “punk” part coming from, thumbing its nose at the idea there’s any one way to do it. So, when I accepted the challenge, I decided to develop a wide-open concept. Yes, there would be some staples from steampunk—steam-powered machines, airships, strange science, and intrigue—but I didn’t want to tie this new series into just science fiction or just fantasy. I wanted to create something that could be Urban Steampunk, Steampunk Noir, Steampunk Horror, or even Steampunk Romance. Basically, if there’s a genre out there, I wanted an author to feel comfortable creating a story set in my new world. Heck, if someone wanted to do Steampunk Literary, I couldn’t wait to see it. But first I had to create the framework for all these potential stories.
I remembered a cover I had seen when I attended the convention Archon 30, back in 2006. Alan Gutierrez’s wraparound cover had a woman with steel wings and mechanical arms standing there in a modified kimono on the front and a scene of airships mounting cannons flying over a landscape launching small airplanes from underneath. So, using the cover as inspiration, I knew I wanted to use winged people. Then looking at the airships, I had another inspiration. Being a longtime Trekkie, I was reminded of an original series episode called “The Cloud Minders,” in which the wealthy lived in floating cities while the commoners worked in horrible conditions on the planet’s surface.
Suddenly, I had my idea for the storyline.
What if there was a city where the more powerful, more influential or wealthier you were, the higher up in the city you lived? Thus the city of Southwatch was born. I took two sheets of paper and began doodling. On one page, I built a city with a huge steam plant in the center of the town, dividing it up into various sections. On the other page, I began working on an elevation map, deciding which region was the tallest and which were the lowest. As I played with this idea, I came up with a second one—the Dark Cloud.
Playing the “what if” game of brainstorming, I decided Southwatch was a major industrial city with a pollution problem. However, in Southwatch, the pollution had been affected by strange winds. The cloud of pollution grew out to the city limits and stopped, swirling slowly over the town in a huge fifty-foot mass. So, literally, there was a separation between the middle and lower classes and the (literal) upper class.
The city has a huge fleet of airships stationed above it, moored to the tallest portions of the town. While discussing this idea with Celina, we decided there were two different types of airships hovering above the town. The outermost ring of ships consisted of the standard military style airships, which I decided were manned by the Sky Rangers, the city’s main defenders. The interior ships are made out of a Southwatch unique material called “bessum.” This is a special mixture of glass with the tensile strength of steel. It allows for the building of beautiful airships large enough for “noble” housing. Also, it creates a spectacular visual with a flock of stained-glass airships hovering high above a dark cloud below.
Another thought that came to me while I was envisioning a towering city of skyscrapers. I remember going to the old Chicago Con back at the Rosemont Center. The convention was connected to the four major hotels by these walkways above the highways. They were commonly referred to as the habitrails, since they were completely enclosed to protected conventioneers from the weather. So, since we’re talking about huge skyscrapers hundreds of floors high, no one is going to want to have to go down to the ground floor walk to the next building and then take a steam-powered elevator back up. So now imagine standing on the ground and looking up to see a spider work of enclosed and open walkways between buildings extending up toward a dark, slowly swirling cloud over your head, allowing workers, deliverymen, messengers, and families to travel between buildings, while on the street around you, steam and electric powered cars jockey with bicyclists and a strange contraption that appears to be half-wagon and half horse clops down the street. Under your feet, you can feel the throbbing of the factories and the heavy people-movers taking those who live down in the underground slums from their homes to the steel mills and the factories that build the items that keep Southwatch running.
Oh, did I mention the mechanicals? Yes, along with the mechanical horses that were seen on the street, there are mechanical workers in Southwatch. Designed by the finest scientists (mad or otherwise), there are four different types. There are the winders—simple mechanical devices custom built for their specific jobs and, true to their names, require winding every so often by their human minders. Slightly more advanced than the winders were the myrmidons, generally humanoid in shape, primarily designed to provide military and police support for the humans in Southwatch. Even more advanced are the cybernauts, who serve as personal servants in jobs where the winders or myrmidons would make regular humans nervous. A fourth type of mechanical does not exist officially, but some people claim there are self-aware mechanicals called androids. Most people say androids are a figment of a vivid imagination, but there are those who speak of them in hushed tones and swear they exist. What will the writers who visit Southwatch decide? To be quite honest, there could be one story that swears they do exist and one that says they’re nothing but an urban legend and they both could be right. After all, not ever character in Southwatch is going to have the same understanding of the city or the same point of reference. That’s going to be the great part about doing a shared universe.
And speaking of urban legends, I created seven of them. However, all I did was come up with the name. Who is the Lady in White? Does the White Cliffs Strangler really exist? Are there more than seven urban legends in Southwatch? I certainly hope so for a city that’s been around for over a thousand years. However, that’s left to the writer’s imagination. The writers who want to visit Southwatch can certainly create their own or flesh out the ones I introduce. This was a decision I made to give our authors as much latitude as possible to create their own stories. It was a fine line to walk. I wanted to provide enough details for writers to get a good feel for Southwatch but not put so much detail into it so that the writers can put their own personal spin on this world.
(Of course I have my own opinions on what is what in Southwatch—it is my baby, after all—but that’s the joy of a shared world. I fully expect the writers to come up with ideas I never even considered and plots that will make me smack myself in the forehead, saying, “Why didn’t I think of that!” I’m really looking forward to that happening one day.)
All of this was a good start, but there’s more to tell in Part Two . . .