World Building: A Steampunk Experience

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The best world building happens so far in the background, you don't even realize it.

The town was not a town, so much as a waypoint. People travelled through Upper Toppingsley to go somewhere more interesting.

I passed through the main thoroughfare – little more than a dirt path that ran between two neat rows of buildings. On one side a series of shops stood in a row. The local boutique with its wide windows displayed the fashions  that appealed to the ladies of the village. Large bustles were au courant, tightly laced corsets the ideal.

Between the boutique and the small bookseller next door I heard a steady hum. Tucked neatly in the narrow alley between was a small steam engine. The steady thrumming sound emanating from the device reminded me of the vibrations at the airfield. Despite my best efforts to put the thought of Constable Higglesby and the severed head from my mind, I wondered if there wasn’t some bit of information I had missed in the examination. Perhaps the second  murder could have been avoided if I had found some evidence on the head.

     This was an early victim of the slash and burn job I performed on my work in progress. Due to several changes I made to characters, as well as simply not being pleased with the passage, it was excised. The reason was simple. I attempted some world building while simultaneously trying to Advance a plot.
     I am not good at world building. There, I said it. It isn’t difficult, but I find it is often awkward to cram world building elements into a story. Besides just the physical world, I feel awkward when putting historical elements (real or fictional) into my projects. I find I am too often including too much information, bogging the story down.
     One of the central elements of my project is the development and use of the difference engine. Businesses within my story have begun to use these devices to run day to day operations, much like computers in the real world.
     With all of the world building details I am using, it often feels like I’m doing more telling than showing. Since I am only on the first draft, I won’t dwell too much, but it makes the editing process take much longer if I turn a blind eye to all of the rules I break while writing.
     I have been trying to learn from the authors I read. How do they create their worlds? How much information is shared with the reader? Are they using info dumps to share their world? Or do they spread the information throughout the story?
     As a reader, I don’t like info dumps. I forget information as soon as it is shared. I prefer to learn about the author’s world as I read. It helps the information to stick. If there is too much detail, I lose track. Sadly, it turns out I am a writer who info dumps.
     The solution: I act like the history is common knowledge. Anything too obscure gets an explanation; everything else is only explained when necessary.
     I do enjoy creating a history and civilization. When I work on a Science Fiction story, especially one that involves other planets and alien beings, I spend days creating their society. History, heroes and villains, and customs all help me to make a character feel more real. I know, realistically, that very little of that information will ever see the light of day, but it aids me in the writing process.
     My other area for improvement is consistency and accuracy. While my story is set in a Steampunk themed alternate history, certain elements must remain historically accurate. For example, a character in the story uses a form of wireless communication between his difference engine and his automatons.  Using radio waves to do this helps his automatons perform more actions without requiring larger processing capacity within each unit. The downside is that Guglielmo Marconi had not yet invented the radio, and radio waves were still considered theoretical at that point in history. What resulted was a long research session, extrapolations of possible what if scenarios to devise a possible alternate father of the radio.

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Why couldn't you have invented the radio 30 years earlier?

     Ultimately I decided a solution that works within the reality of the story. However, in doing so, I had to use an alternate naming scheme for radio waves. The result is the same, even if the characters’ understanding of the technology is incomplete. I just have to remember that I cannot use the word radio.  That is a difficult task.  So, my suggestion to other ambitious writers is, if at any point you are considering renaming technology or natural phenomena, consider the fact you may need to use that term frequently. Will you be able to remember to use it?
     For writers and readers, what are some world building elements that are difficult for you, whether you are writing or reading?
   

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