Contested Boundaries

All throughout the history of our world rulers have lead incursions into neighboring countries, seizing land, and changing boundaries in order to seize valuable natural resources or to gain access to water routes. Often the battles have been fierce with both sides losing hundreds of warriors.

To the victors went the spoils which included family treasures, verdant fields and the virginity of women. All was justified under the loose definition of what constitutes victory.

Close your eyes and imagine what that world must have been like: living in fear, burying valuables in the fields, constantly running and hiding. What story comes to mind?

Your task is to write a story in which one army invades a country.  First decide the setting, which includes place and time. Equip your army with weapons of war and then send them on their way. Will your army be victorious or not? Use narrative to describe the scene and the action, but include dialogue as well so readers can understand how your characters are thinking and feeling.

Gore is okay if that’s what you want to write, but a humiliating defeat is just as terrible without blood and guts.

Have fun with this one.

Code of Conduct

A code of conduct is a set of rules that outlines the norms of behavior, the responsibilities and proper practices of an individual within a society or organization. It sets what behaviors are considered acceptable and which are not. Many of these are written in the form of laws for which punishments are enacted if an individual chooses to break the code. However, many are unwritten, such as not spitting on the playground, cleaning up after yourself and not trampling the flowers in your neighbor’s garden.

Knights of yore had codes that defined behaviors that they couldn’t do, such as not slaughtering civilians, taking care of their steeds and those of their opponents when captured, and communicating effectively for the benefit of all. They also couldn’t make an opponent suffer needlessly and if someone, even a brethren, was fleeing, to kill them swiftly and mercilessly.

Your task is to list a series of codes of conduct for your society. Once you have a sufficient amount, you will write a story in which someone breaks the code. The offense could take place within a powerful modern-day company or in a fantasy world based loosely on the Middle Ages.

Once the code is broken, what happens next decides where the story goes. The offending person could be your protagonist who willingly made the choice because it conflicted with a personal belief system or it could be an entire army that refuses to follow a command that it deems offensive. Conflict arises which leads to tension. As it is resolved, your protagonist might have to make decisions affecting her ability to survive.

Have fun with this one.

Functional Infrastructure

Infrastructure is the combined facilities and structures that a society needs for its economy to function. It includes bridges, roads, telecommunications systems, water and sewage systems and electrical grids. Airports, tunnels, hospitals, lighthouses, public schools, parks and other public spaces also fall under the umbrella of infrastructure. The degree to which each is developed tells a lot about that society.

A primitive society might have dirt roads and wooden dams while a technologically advanced community would employ systems that perhaps have yet to be developed.

When creating the setting for your story, these elements might not play a major role, but they could. Imagine if an earthquake breaks the walls of a dam and water pours down river, flooding cities in its wake. Perhaps the local hospital is so overrun with accident victims that additional cases have to be transported to other communities.

Your task is to create a story in which something happens that threatens an element of the infrastructure. Begin by settling on the one event that you feel the most comfortable writing about. Place your characters in the scene, taking into consideration how the event will affect each and how they will react, realizing that people behave differently when threatened.

You can start with the disaster right from the beginning, or establish the “normal” world so that readers understand what life was like before things went wrong. Dialogue and narrative are both important. Narrative puts readers into the heart of the action while dialogue exposes the fears, the concerns, the reactions of characters in the story.

Have fun with this one.

Scientific Challenges

Back in ancient times, science was not well-developed or respected. One reason was because scientists were seen to be heretics in conflict with the teachings of the church. Eventually the church realized that the medical advancements were important to improve the lives of their members.

The Roman Empire changed attitudes toward research and development. Studies lead to inventions, theories and scientific research. For example, Romans created the first system of plumbing to remove waste. They built aqueducts using arches, designed a primitive cooling system using the hollow spaces in columns and concrete to strengthen buildings.

How a society looks at science influences beliefs and practices. A progressive nation might revere scientists and place their research on a pedestal, while developing country might utilize science to enhance agricultural output.

Your task is to write a story in which science plays an important role. Narrative will be important for setting the scene, but dialogue will allow readers to see how science fits into that world. Your story can take place in the past or future, it can be realistic or fantastical.

Have fun with this one.

Living Conditions

Picture a pastoral scene where tidy thatched cottages are nestled between rows of green hedges. Walk inside and take a look around. Useful pottery lines handmade shelves. A kettle hangs over a fire and items of clothing hang from wooden pegs high up on the wall.

Now imagine a teeming city. Perhaps the streets are muddy or maybe they are made with cobblestones. Wooden buildings several stories high line both sides. Laundry hangs out of some of the windows. Children’s voices echo as they kick a ball down the street. Inside the floor is a dingy linoleum or maybe stained carpet. Cooking smells mingle creating an unpleasant odor.

Very different living conditions, right? Where your story takes place influences how people live. The wealthy will not have the same needs as the poor. This is an important element to consider when writing a story.

Your task is to first create a list of possible living conditions for your story. Include enough detail that it comes alive. Next select the one that will make the most interesting scenario and write.

You could take us down memory lane or off to a futuristic settlement. Maybe you prefer a certain historical period and so want to use those conditions in your story.

When you are finished, reread looking for the details that allow readers to walk with your character.

Have fun with this one.

Magic in Your World

Most fantasy stories include magic in some form. As a writer of fantasy, you must consider various aspects of magic, such as who wields it, to what degree, and to what purpose. Also weigh at what cost to the user, especially if the user experiences weakness and needs time to recover in order to be back at full power.

In order to be believable, magic must be consistent. For example, if the wielder can quell fire, why doesn’t he when the cabin in which he is sheltering is set on fire by an enemy? If magic is unpredictable, that might be fodder for an unusual story, but will readers buy into it?

A good way to keep track of the ways in which magic plays into the drama is by keeping notes and checking them frequently. Record the person, power, cost and use. As characters’’ powers change, remember to return to your chart and list them as well.

Another factor is public attitude toward magic in your world. Is it revered or feared? Is it a common trait or rare? Is it honed through learning and practice or wild and uncontrollable?

Your task is to create a list that documents who has magic, what type and how it is used. Once this is complete, write a story in which magic influences the outcome, either positively or negatively.

Don’t overdo it. A little magic can be more powerful than a devastating wizards’ dual.

Have fun with this one.

Creatures in Your World

While monsters and fantastical creatures aren’t a necessary ingredient in science fiction and fantasy, but they add a great deal of fun to the story. Such beings could be described as anything that hasn’t been seen before, that has the potential to be frightening due to unknown powers, or known beings that are presented in unusual ways.

Everyone knows what a shark is, but the enormous, vicious one in the movie Jaws was terrifying because of its proportions, perseverance, and power.  The rest of the world contained the usual flora and fauna.

Your world can contain a little of both living side-by-side. Or everything is completely new yet fulfills roles that known animals do, such as be used for pulling, lifting, riding, and as food sources.

Your task is to create a list of four different monsters that will people your world. Give them names, characteristics and physical descriptions. It would be important to also know what powers each has and whether or not they are subservient to humans.

Write a story in which one monster plays a key role. It can be the protagonist who is intent to conquer the world or the antagonist to a hero who intends to save the world.

Have fun with this one.

Draw a Map

Back in the old days when going somewhere new you’d pull out a paper map and highlight the streets to be crossed in order to arrive when and where you were going. Today we rely on portable devices that show in real time where we are and tell us when to switch lanes, when to turn, when we have arrived.

Before you write a story we need to establish a map. If it takes place in a real city, real neighborhood, procure a paper map. Drive on the streets that you will use, making note of businesses such as fast food, medial centers, shopping opportunities. Mark schools, churches and traffic lights.

Take pictures of houses, plants, trees. Crosswalks. Intersections. Stop and wind down your windows. Listen to the birds. Smell the flowers in bloom or the pollution from industry or car exhausts.

In other words, cover the scene so completely that it lives in your mind and on paper.

Your task then is to go for a drive. Take a camera and paper and pen. Stop periodically to snap images and to record sights, sounds, smells. Spend an hour or so over each day over the period of time that your story will cover. Winter, spring, summer and fall might be changes to the area that play important parts in the story.

Create an album or folder on your computer and access the information before you begin each writing session.

Have fun with this one.

Establishing Setting

I’ve always had a hard time getting the introduction of setting on the first page. I realize that it’s important that readers know when and where a story takes place, but how do you insert the details without being pedantic?

I’ve tried beginning with a description of the scene, such as John  Steinbeck did so well in both Of Mice and Men and The Pearl. What seemed to come naturally to him is forced from me. Steinbeck was able to set the scene so well that you could almost hear the wind blowing through the trees and smell the smoke from the cook fire.

Science fiction writers have to describe a whole new world in such a way that the reader understands exactly what’s going on. Many might begin with a map, naming places and drawing boundaries in such a way that readers will feel at home as characters pass through the different areas.

Stories set in the past have to establish historical accuracy from the get-go. This includes foods, dress, language, environments and so on. It requires a great amount of research to make sure that this world depicts the way things were.

My stories tend to be contemporary in my world, which means in the San Francisco Bay Area. I do this on purpose. First of all, it’s a world I know and understand. Secondly, I don’t have to use too much imagination to place my characters in the world and set them in motion.

So how do you establish setting? I recommend looking at authors that you respect. Reread the first pages of many different books. Take notes. Imitate what you read, down to the sentence structures, replacing a noun for a noun and a verb for a verb.

Do this over and over until you feel comfortable working on your own.

This is your task. Think of a story that you want to tell.  Using one of the models that you have created as a beginning, tell the story. When you are finished, go back and reread. Does the setting work? When you start reading, do you know the time period and the place or do you have to guess?

If you, the writer, don’t know, then neither will your reader. In this case, go back to your models and try again. Repeat this process until your setting works.

Have fun  with this one.