Proposal: How to Write Yourself a World


For a long time, I took the advice to “write what you know” as my credo.  The fiction I wrote was mostly events from my life, with feeble half-characters pasted over the faces of my friends.  It was cathartic to write, dull to read, and embarrassing to look back on.

That changed a year ago, when I got caught up in the scifi TV show Firefly.  The show lasted less than a season and, despite what its rabid fans will tell you, it’s not that good.  The acting’s kind of mediocre and the dialogue occasionally stretched, but I LOVE it, as in hearts-in-my-eyes doodling-in-my-notebook learned-the-theme-song-on-guitar love it.  I watch it over and over for the same reason I read books like Redwall and Lord of the Rings as a kid: it takes me to another universe, a place drawn out with such careful love that the atmosphere of the story bleeds even into my real life.  In a totally not-nerdy way, I swear.

That’s what I want to do with my writing.  I’m writing a scifi novel (still having a hard time admitting that to any of my serious literature-y friends), and one of the most challenging aspects of the writing process is the research that goes into creating that new world.  I’ve been pulling inspiration from all over the place: Nepalese honey-hunters, turn-of-the-century Argentine brothels, Salt Lake City geology, Chinese yttrium mining.  In that way, the scifi novel has become a new sort of autobiographical writing for me.  Rather than writing about events that happened to me, I’m taking what I’m interested in, and blending those different passions into one coherent world and story.

Up until now, I have been storing all that information in my brain, but Professor McDaniel suggested that for my capstone process, I take one chapter of the story and illustrate the research-based scaffolding that went into writing that.  That’s an idea with potential, but I need to spend a lot of time figuring out how exactly I’m going to present and organize all that in a cool way.  Any suggestions from y’all would be much appreciated!

Mary Gallagher

I'd like to be good at poetry, short stories, and creative nonfiction, but really I'm here to develop the skills to write about politics and world issues

10 thoughts to “Proposal: How to Write Yourself a World”

  1. Hey, Mary,

    I think ti’s good to see any fiction or even creative non-fiction as a mode in which the author must create a world for the audience to digest. If an audience feels that they’ve been transported into a new world (maybe just a really interesting character relationship), they will be more invested. That being said, I think it’s really cool that you’re choosing to build that takes so much logistical construction. The best advice I can give you on this is to make sure that you’re not telling us as readers the logic of your story world, but letting these facts come out naturally in ways that are organic to the story. I hear that is what is hardest about Sci-fi and fantasy. It’s not coming up with an interesting new world but its disclosing that new world in an engaging and seamless way.

    As far as mapping out your research for just one chapter, I think you have a lot of different options. I think if you did a Presi, it could look really visually pleasing and fit your content. Presi’s kind of look like galaxies of their own, and every slide you change looks like you’re hopping from planet to planet. Check it out.

  2. Hi Mary,

    World building is so hard – that’s all I kept thinking about while reading your post and I’m always impressed when anyone says they’re creating a world for themselves. But it’s one of those things that as a primarily creative non-fiction writer I wouldn’t know how even to start. So I’d be like, the perfect audience for a breakdown of how and what goes into each chapter.

    My immediate thought is design a workshop as if you were trying to teach someone (like me!) how to world build. Questions for that – how do you start with however you started and come up with a whole world? What are the steps? Where do you go for inspiration? How do you figure out characters? Setting? Do you draw maps to keep everything straight? (I knew a girl once who was creating an online comic and she created the clothing that she wanted her character to wear so she would know how to draw it – and she wore it!) What tactics do you use? What are Mary’s steps? I’d LOVE to see that.

  3. Well I’m already really into your project; sci-fi is great! Plus I think your idea about putting your interests into the story is really smart. It means that you’ll actually be interested in the things you have to research, and I think that makes the project all the more interesting.
    Personally, I would make the process visual rather than completely prose based. You could move through your writing process by showing your flow of ideas in some kind of visual representation, maybe even a video.
    I’m not very familiar with writing fiction, so I don’t know how the writing process goes but I would imagine that you have some kind of idea about your movement through ideas and this will help in trying to find visual representations for the ideas. I’m sorry I couldn’t be of more help, since I have almost never written fiction, but good luck!

  4. Mary,
    I’m not sure how comfortable you are with drawing and sketching, but this could be a cool way for you to illustrate the type of analysis you plan on tackling. How you as an author envision the world you are creating is incredibly important. You might try your hand sketching some pictures of different places or characters in your book, then write a short essay to accompany it, explaining how that particular fantastic image came into your mind. Is it based off someone or something? Or did you dream about it last night?
    Furthermore, it would be cool to add in little speech bubbles on the actual picture analyzing different parts of the image. Kind of like a mock up for a dress or something. It would give readers an in depth and personal look at your creative process in a very visual and obvious way.
    Just a thought!


  5. Hello, Mary!

    I think your idea sounds challenging and so interesting! It sounds like you’ve already got a pretty solid base for it, having been working on it, but need to find a new way to organize and present all of the research you’ve done and information you’ve gathered.

    My project idea was about the process of fiction writing (although from a much less experienced perspective!), so I’m really interested in the creative process of how you wrote your chapter. I tend to be really drawn to visuals and love the idea of transforming text into some kind of visual medium, so the first thing that comes to mind when trying to brainstorm a creative way you could present your research is a sort of documentary or discussion-based video, like Lisa suggested. You could talk about your process and inspirations, and do a video storyboard type thing to help show how all of those research topics (Nepalese honey-hunters? Turn-of-the-century Argentine brothels? I know nothing.) fit into your story/story chapter. It would always be interesting to hear about what didn’t work as well- what did you nix from the story? Why didn’t you think it worked? That’s part of the process too, I’d think!

  6. Hi Mary,
    First of all, major props for writing a novel. Good luck with that! I agree with everything you’re saying about why you enjoy fiction and its ability to take you somewhere else. Though I have more nonfiction experience, definitely can understand the amount of research that goes into making fiction good fiction. In terms of your project, I definitely think Ray’s suggestion is a really good one. Most people probably don’t understand the research that goes into fiction–they probably think you’re just making it up off the top of your head–and this would be a great way to illuminate the challenges it presents. As far as how to go about this, one suggestion I have would be to use Prezi. It’s a great tool for both text and visuals, and the way it lays your project out would really translate well to the whole scaffolding idea. If you have any questions about it, feel free to ask me. I’ve used Prezi a few times and know my way around it.

  7. Hey Mary!

    I wouldn’t even know where to start when thinking about what to put in this new world. But this idea sounds awesome and intriguing. I definitely don’t think you’ll get bored anytime soon. Although I don’t have a suggestion about the actual content, I do have a couple of broad suggestions about how to present it. I think when working on something so specific, it can be cool to describe the process in a completely different genre, like a children’s book or something. You could also write it as a story board or maybe even a screenplay! It sounds like you have a great deal of knowledge and research about the topic, so a way to make it challenging would be to create something completely out of your comfort zone.

    Good luck!

  8. Hey Mary,

    This is one of my favorite ideas that I’ve heard! The concept of breaking down the creative process into its actual component decisions is an idea that I have also been toying with. What I envisioned for your project is to treat the chapter of your story like a document to which you are making track changes or annotations. Having the original text which you could then click on to reveal notes about the reasons for including this text seems like it would be really interesting. Basically I’m envisioning something like what does (formally with established song lyrics, literature, and poetry. If you make an account, though, you can add text of your own, and then annotate it with as many words and pictures as you like. As an avid user of this site, I may be looking into it for my own project as well. I’m excited to see where you take this!

  9. Hey Mary! Writing a novel in itself is a lot to take on and super impressive! I consider myself a “writer” but still don’t know if I could do that. Thus, I for one would love to hear about the process. In particular, a kind of antithesis within your description of the novel jumped out at me. You want to create a world of your own, obviously different from the one in which we live; yet, you draw inspiration from worldly sources. On one hand this is a “duh” kind of concept but I think that examining the process by which you take normal world circumstance or characteristic and transform it in a way that reflects something completely different could be really interesting.

  10. Hey Mary,

    The one quality of sci-fi and fantasy that’s always struck me – a big ol’ book/movie/video-game nerd if ever there was one – is that it’s never as removed from reality as it appears on first glance. For example, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that J.K. Rowling came up with an idea for a series about a poor, orphaned boy who overcame substantial odds when she herself was a penniless, out-of-work writer. More abstractly, I think (and I’m pretty sure a lot of scholars have talked about this ad nauseam, though I’ve never actually studied it personally) that you could read a lot of the “growing darkness” that Tolkien describes rising through Middle Earth as a reflection of his experience with the great evils of WWI and WWII. That said, I don’t think that Tolkien necessarily wrote LOTR thinking, “I’m going to write a book that will be a metaphor for my own life and times!” (though maybe he did, who knows?) – though I think a more likely scenario is that he wrote them to transport himself away from the harsh reality of his own world, but couldn’t help bringing some if his own baggage with him. My point is, I think that you can still “write what you know” in a fantasy or science fiction story, and that you may end up doing so even if you try not to. Maybe you can look to the various myths, legends, and traditions you’ve studied for inspiration, but don’t be afraid to write a character who feels familiar to you despite their unfamiliar surroundings.

    I hope this is all helpful! Please let me know if you have any questions, or if you’d ever like to get together and bounce ideas around.

Leave a Reply