This phrase is never more important than to the Paranormal/Fantasy/Sci-fi writer and here’s the reason why: For these genres you build a world from scratch. This is probably the most you will ever play God during the writing process.
Don’t get me wrong, contemporary writers also build worlds, but they take from what we already know—the world we live in. We must be authentic to reality when we’re writing contemporary. Deviations will definitely put you into a whole different genre. No flying cars in contemporary. No supernatural creatures—i.e. vampires, werewolves, etc. Ghosts are debatable because the concept depends on what you believe. But, for this post, let’s stick with the idea that in contemporary we already have a world to work with, we build upon it or improve it to suit our story.
For our purposes we’ll concentrate on paranormal world building. Why? Because it’s what the class calls for, but also because we all know fantasy and sci-fi are leopards with stripes. You’re building a world from scratch. Like, seriously, from scratch.
With paranormal you don’t necessarily have to build a world out of nothing, but there are certain elements of the world you’re building that you must keep in mind. This is where you begin to recall all the paranormal novels you’ve read that blew you away. I will be using examples as we go along. If you haven’t read any of the books I mention, I say check them out after reading this.
Now, let’s assume you’re writing a paranormal novel (romance or otherwise) that is contemporary because that’s the easiest to start with. You may ask, what about historical paranormal? That’s fine. You just need to remember that you really need to research the era you’re writing in. Is it Victorian? Is it Ancient Greece/Rome? Is it World War II? In short, unless you’re already well-versed with historical, let’s keep our timeframe in the present. This rule also applies for futuristic, bordering on sci-fi. Again, this is world building from the ground up.
So, we’re sticking with a contemporary paranormal novel. Baby steps, people.
Tip: to keep from dating your novel, try not to over-reference pop culture. Example, Candy Crush, like Angry Birds, is a popular game, but it won’t always be. In fact, at the writing of this post, people would have moved on to something new. Mentioning the game in your story will definitely date it. A way around this, if you have a character who likes playing these games, is to generalize. Mention the smart phone games but don’t specify. A loophole is to make up your own game, but only if it will serve to develop your character. If it doesn’t, I suggest delete because it will bog down your story with unnecessary details. Save the word count for the information that does count.
Okay, I’ve digress. Let’s get back on topic.
First, know your setting.
Is your novel set in a small town like in Twilight? Is your novel set in the city like in the Guild Hunters series by Nalini Singh? What kind of city is it? What kind of small town? Or is it a small village?
Twilight uses Forks effectively because the town is under a constant cover of clouds, it rains often since it is located in Washington State, and there’s a lot of woodland surrounding the area. Stephenie Meyer did her research. Do yours as well, unless you’re going for a generic setting. Meaning, generic small town or generic urban setting. The pitfall when you take this route is the world might not ring true to your readers. So, you must know your setting. Add personal touches that only your characters know about the setting. Remember, if your characters believe in what they are describing, most likely your readers will too.
Second, and this is the most important part, know your supernatural creature.
If you’re writing about vampires, what makes yours stand out from all the other vampires that populate Fiction Land? We all know Edward sparkles. But my favorite vampires have to be the Daimons from Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunters series. They don’t go for blood. They go for human souls. Another favorite of mine comes from Nalini Singh. Her vampires are created by Archangels. Totally unexpected and cool. In other words, set your supernatural creature apart.
This is where reading a lot helps. If you know what is already out there it is most likely that you won’t copy what has already been done. Or at the very least improve upon it and add your special twist. To do that, you must know them.
Even before you start writing your story, create a word file that describes your creatures. What are they? What makes them special? What are their origins? Are they immortal? Are they made? Are they born? What can kill them? How do they kill? What is their primary form of sustenance?
Take note that all this information you will put together about your supernatural creature may never make it into the book, but knowing these beings inside and out will definitely add a level of authenticity and believability to your work. Because how can you write about something you know nothing about? Even if it’s fiction.
Third, know your restrictions.
What I mean by this is: in your story are your creatures out in the open or living a secret life? This may seem like an easy question to answer, but in reality it’s not. If they are out in the open, how is the world treating these creatures? Are they still outcasts? Has the world accepted them into the fold? If so, how and why?
In Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series her supernatural creatures start out living in secret. As the series progresses the werewolves come out into the open and begin negotiating with humans for the right to be a part of society. The Fae also come out but insist on being apart from society by living in special compounds. Vampires remain a secret, but I believe as the story moves forward they’ll reveal themselves too.
If you’re creatures live a secret life, why must they keep their existence a secret? Are they trying to live a “normal life” and trying to blend in? Why? Or are they living their supernatural lives but are still keeping a low profile? Again, why?
Knowing the answers to these questions will help build your plot. Add conflict to the story. I’m sure you’ve read paranormal novels were the creatures just don’t work or the concept has promise but fails to deliver. Most of the time it’s because the world building wasn’t solid enough. A writer says: I will write about vampires. Sure, seems easy enough. But we all know that Anne Rice has done it. Stephenie Meyer has done it. Countless other authors have done it. Same goes for werewolves, fairies, mermaids, you name it. What will set yours apart?
Start with the world building.
If you know your world, even if you’re writing a simple girl-meets-supernatural story, you’ll be successful at it because readers will want to step into the pages of the story you have built.