paranormal, Writing
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World Build to a Better Story: Clockwork Alchemy Notes

world building

world building“It’s more interesting to see magic happening in a world that feels grounded. If the world is already crazy, then anything can happen. So it’s better to start with something real.”

            – Michel Gondry

If you couldn’t make the Clockwork Alchemy panel, World Build to a Better Story, never fear. I jotted down some notes — advice from my fellow panelists, Emily Thompson, Gigi Pandian, and Dover Whitecliff. Since I was also chairing the panel, I didn’t capture everything or everyone’s answer (sorry, fellow panelists). But for what it’s worth, here are my notes:

Q: What does world building mean to you?

Emily: World building is the background, not the driving force. [Tweet this!]

Gigi: Don’t take the reader’s imagination for granted. Don’t assume they understand the scene. The details of the scene and world  have to be on the page.

Me: I see three layers to world-building. First, the “what if” that makes your world unique (e.g. what if the Victorians used aether as a paranormal power source). Second, the real world, e.g. the reality of Victorian life – from corsets to manners. And finally the day-to-day stuff that we all can relate to.

Q: What world building takeaways have you gotten from your favorite books, movies, or TV?

Dover: Have a hobbit. Not a literal hobbit, but in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien uses the hobbit to reveal the world to the reader. Frodo is adventuring into the wide world for the first time, just like the reader, and the reader encounters this world through his “newbie” eyes. This device – a character who’s seeing the world or the new element for the first time – is extremely useful.

Gigi: Think big. Go for larger than life characters. Don’t be afraid to be bold! [Tweet this!]

Emily: Read, read, read. Know the rules so you can break them. And don’t forget the details in your world. They bring it to life.

Q: Do you create a story bible? If so, what does it look like?

Emily: Sorry, no. I keep it all in my head.

Dover: I keep a word document with all the character details. And Pinterest makes a terrific world board.

Me: I do create a story bible, with character details, details of my magical system(s), and information and photos of the location. I use this in combination with Evernote, which is terrific for organizing research I find on the Internet.

Gigi: I use Scrivener. It has a terrific split-screen function so you can look at the details of your world and character while you write.

Q: How do you make place descriptions engaging, so readers don’t want to skim?

Emily: I weave the descriptions into dialog tags, so you have to read them! [Editor’s note: The most common dialog tags are he said/she said. E.g.: “I care nothing for the paranormal,” he said. But one could write a moving descriptor instead, e.g.: Frowning, he adjusted his bowler hat. “I care nothing for the paranormal.”]

Gigi: I try to describe the place through the character’s eyes, so you get a feel for the character AND the place at the same time.

Q: What about developing magical or technological systems? What’s your process?

Dover: I buy a big piece of poster paper, get sticky notes, and at the top write where history changes. E.g., if X didn’t happen, what also wouldn’t happen? Then I use the sticky notes to follow those ripples. For creating timetables, I recommend the book, Timetables of History. You’d be amazed by what was happening when and where.

Me: To develop a magical system, I answer five questions: 1) What’s the source of the magic? 2) What can you do with it? 3) What does it mean for the story, world, or characters? 4) How does one access the magic? 5) What’s the cost of using the magic?

Gigi: I read widely before starting. For example, my upcoming book is about alchemy, so I read a lot about it before starting.

This video was not a part of the world building for writers panel, but I thought it had some good stuff.

The good stuff (i.e. world building advice) starts after the 3 minute mark.

About the Panelists

Emily Thompson is an author and artist, from northern California. Although she adores Steampunk and all things Victoriana, she also writes occasional Sci-fi and fantasy. After studying film and animation in university, she changed to a Japanese language focus and studied abroad in Tokyo for a year. She received a degree in Japanese and later spent nearly another two years in Japan, teaching English and writing. She now lives in Silicon Valley and spends most of her time writing in coffee shops, painting, and playing far too many video games. Her Steampunk Clockwork Twist series is available on Amazon and other Internet retailers.

Gigi Pandian is the child of cultural anthropologists from New Mexico and the southern tip of India. After being dragged around the world during her childhood, she tried to escape her fate when she left a PhD program for art school. But adventurous academic characters wouldn’t stay out of her head. Thus was born the Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt Mystery Series. The first book in the series, Artifact, was awarded a Malice Domestic Grant and was a USA Today best seller.

Dover Whitecliff was born in the shadow of Fujiyama, raised in the shadow of Olomana, and lives where she can see the shadow of Mt. Shasta if she squints and it’s a really clear day. She is a wild and woolly wordsmith, a blogger, an analyst, and a jack-of-all-trades, but mostly a writer. Dover currently spends her free time writing the stories inside her that are fighting to get out, and playing Rock Band with her husband, big brother, little brother, and consigliere, all of whom will graciously allow her to touch the instruments on occasion, but mostly just hand off the microphone so she can sing. She lives in Sacramento, California with her very patient and wonderful husband and several hundred bears. Her steampunk novel, The Stolen Songbird, is available at most fine Internet retailers.

About the Author

Kirsten Weiss is the author of Steam and Sensibility, a steampunk novel of suspense, and the Riga Hayworth series of paranormal mysteries: the urban fantasy, The Metaphysical DetectiveThe Alchemical DetectiveThe Shamanic DetectiveThe Infernal Detective and The Elemental Detective. Get her books on Amazon, Kobo, or Barnes & Noble.



  1. Reblogged this on Wild and Woolly Wordsmithing and commented:
    I had an absolute blast taking part in the world-building panel with these talented authors. If you couldn’t make it to San Jose, here’s what happened. Thank you so much Kirsten for inviting me and documenting the panel… Oh, and the video rocks!!!

  2. Pingback: Can You Have Too Much Worldbuilding? | ParaYourNormal

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