J J Blacklocke on The Art of World-Building Inside and Outside the Book

This log is filed under our #SciFiMonth archive. SFM is a month-long celebration of the wonders of Science Fiction, a blog event combining the love of the genre with the connective power of book blogging.

For more info on Sci-Fi Month, check out the introductory post on Imiryl’s blog and join us in this mission to read and rebel! I really recommend you follow the event’s Twitter as well, to stay on track with everybody’s posts.

Welcome, and thank you for visiting!

Day 11 of SciFi Month is upon us (I’m convinced time doesn’t fly, it warp drives), and I’m proud to join you for another day of exciting content.

Today I hope you’ll join me in welcoming J J Blacklocke to the blog! This author power duo has just released the first book in their space opera on two days ago, working with Aethon Books to bring us a story that will wow any reader with its enterprising (yes, this is a Star Trek pun because sci-fi), sensational worldbuilding.

After J J approached me for a review and I curiously peered through the authors’ website, I was absolutely fascinated by its construction, and the richness of the world these two authors had built, even outside the pages of their story. It immediately dragged out a eager yes to the authors’ request.

Seriously, if you check out Blacklocke’s website and are not the least bit intrigued, I’ll swallow my own foot. Not only is the design gorgeous, there’s just so much to explore before you even begin reading. I loved that. I’ve added links to some of the interesting subjects on the website to the guest post, if you want a guide to support you in your exploration.

I’m greatly devoted to worldbuilding in stories and it’s the details that really call out to me, thought put into the construction of each culture, the whys of tradition, the whats of language. I was (clearly) already impressed with the amount of work and thought the authors had put into their website, but after reading the book and then reading the guest post Blacklocke were kind enough to write for Sci-Fi Month, I realized one of the greatest wonder of stories is how the more you hear about them, the more your awareness of those little things grows, the more fascinating they become.

Reading about Blacklocke’s worldbuilding process, their reasoning behind the unassuming yet crucial details of their world, and exploring their website, not only excited me, it made me realize how big a world a story creates, even after you’ve finished reading it. It’s those worlds that can go on forever, explored ever further in plenty of ways. And if that resonance isn’t a celebration of the genre of science fiction, then idk what is.

You can tune in tomorrow for my review of Refuge, but for now, scroll down to read what creative insight Blacklocke has to share on PERSON, PLACE, AND THING: The Art of World-Building Inside and Outside the Book.


Meet J J Blacklocke

Bharat Krishnan author photo

JJ Blacklocke is the author of REFUGE (11/10/20), AFTERSHOCK (1/12/21), and THE BEREFT (4/13/21), the first three volumes of THE TRADEPOINT SAGA, a science fiction series. For more information and insights from JJ Blacklocke, go to:

Website


PERSON, PLACE, AND THING: The Art of World-Building Inside and Outside the Book

What is a noun? 

It’s a person, place, or thing.

For a writer, nouns are bricks. Gather enough of them of the right size, shape, and complexity and you can assemble a world. Your world. The unique world of your story.

Plot is great. Emotion is great. Conflict is great. But they need to be underpinned by bricks, not soap bubbles. So when we (the two-writer team known as JJ Blacklocke) sat down to create our science fiction series, The Tradepoint Saga, we knew we were going to need a whole lot of bricks.

But which ones?

To ground our story (and ourselves), we looked beyond the confines of the page, seeking ways to envision alien elements for our tale and translate them into something to draw readers in and let them take part in this strange adventure.

Our solution has been built from several integral parts: 

  • Brainstorming, with a serious belief that no idea is too bizarre to consider and discuss.
  • Visual commitment, including a private, ‘locked’ folder on www.pinterest.com where we gather photos and drawings from hundreds of online sources, sometimes because an image captures what we ‘see’ in our head, or sometimes because of a single key detail in an otherwise irrelevant photo.
  • Lists. Our story deals with two dozen alien races, and with a large group of survivors led by one stalwart individual. They needed names, as did their unusual possessions, their personal affiliations, their friends and enemies, the things they ate and drank, and on and on. To help keep track of it all, we use trello.com, a flexible online bulletin board that both of us can access and update. 
  • A public website. This came late in the game. Among other concerns, we took care only to display photos that were public access or to which we had purchased the rights. Our website, www.jjblacklocke.com, is an ever-expanding platform on which we can post bonus content and, most importantly, add layers of visual detail to our series ‘world’ to share it with our readers. 

Take the advice of Henry David Thoreau:

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” So, if you’re standing in the middle of the brickyard, ready and eager to construct your world, where should you begin?

Just remember: “A noun is a person, place, or thing.”

Photo of the Shodekekeen, one of the alien races of Refuge. Picture depicts an illustration of a blue creature similar to a Malaysian Sunbear, next to a picture of a Malaysian Sunbear. Picture explains "Malaysian Sunbears" inspired the look of the Shodekekeen, who are affable cloth traders on Tradepoint. Thickly furred, they have no need of clothes themselves but they excel at making them for the other trading races at the station.
The Shodekekeen, one of the alien races of Refuge

PEOPLE

Characters form the all-important heart of any world-building effort. Shape them well and they’ll breathe life into your tale. 

The creation of interesting, believable characters relies on both external and internal characteristics, especially in science fiction. The less familiar an alien race is, the harder you need to work to help your readers understand them. Consistent, fully fleshed-out individuals generously repay the time you spend inventing them. 

Consider outer appearance. Is this character human? Humanoid? Some radically different species altogether? What is their most eye-catching feature? Knowing this helps you sense what other characters in your story will notice first, and what (possibly mistaken) assumptions they’ll make on early acquaintance.

For this, visuals are invaluable to us. Since we write as a team, our individual ‘vision’ for each alien race had to match. That’s why we set up that “locked” file on www.pinterest.com, to store photos and artwork that struck a spark for either of us. Then we review the images together, solidifying our concept for each race, from the massive, blue-furred Shodekekeen (based roughly on Malayan sunbears) to the human-appearing Mamora, a friendly, honest, handsome race of traders who involuntarily exude a musky scent that smells like a skunk. 

Ask yourself a million questions:

  • What environment is most comfortable for your characters to inhabit? 
  • What do they eat? 
  • How does their physical form influence how they move and speak? 
  • Will facial expressions be broad, subtle, or absent altogether?
  • Does physical structure dictate their wants, need, skills, and limitations? 

After all, if you create ten-foot-tall aliens with long tails, you’ll need to place them in a world that accommodates their size – or you’ll need to explore the difficulties that ensue when it doesn’t. When all of this is done well, as James Cameron did in Avatar, your reader will eagerly take a seat on your well-crafted ride. 

But a character’s internal landscape is just as important. The story’s plot often revolves around a character’s emotional response to their past, to the life they are living now, and to the unexpected circumstances that arise. Ask yourself: 

  • Who passionately wants what?
  • What barriers – personal and situational – stand in their way? 
  • Are they coping with a known situation or with circumstances that are new or threatening to them? 
  • What is their ultimate goal? 
  • What are they willing to risk to accomplish it? 

Think outside the box. Do your characters react differently than you would in similar circumstances? Why did you select these particular physical and mental traits for them? How do they fit in, on their home world – physically, mentally, culturally, politically?

Writing REFUGE, the first book in our series, required us to answer all of those questions. And, since we deal with multiple races interacting in close proximity, we also asked ourselves things like: 

  • Is there a power hierarchy within each race? 
  • Is there a power hierarchy within each ship’s crew? 
  • Which races deal well with outsiders, and which tend to clash?
  • How does a station manager ‘keep the peace’ between multiple races? 

Each answer led us to more questions… an endless cycle of delightful exploration. But how, as the creator, do you make all of those decisions clear to your reader? If you can find vivid ways to accomplish that, you’ll create a book that captures your reader’s interest and heart.

Oh, and a final word of advice about characters: Don’t make your people too perfect or smooth their path too much. After all, conflict equals interest!

Gredin te Balamont, one of the main characters, and the driving will, of Refuge. Picture depicts a small blonde, white child on the left, and a similar, older woman on the right.
Gredin te Balamont, one of the main characters and the driving will of Refuge

PLACES

Stories happen somewhere. If you write realistic fiction set in your hometown, the world-building required for your story may be minimal. But if, like us, you create a science fiction tale set on an interstellar trading station inhabited by a variety of alien species, devising a workable setting that your reader can easily envision is a more complex challenge.

First, you need logical architecture and furnishings for that space station – in our case, Tradepoint. The interior plan for Tradepoint was created by the people who built and run it, a race known as the Prett. Architects and builders usually accommodate their own needs and comfort. But Tradepoint’s physical dimensions also need to cope with the diverse sizes and shapes of the races who do business there. As a result:

  • Ceilings are high;
  • Doorways afford lots of clearance, vertically and horizontally;
  • Corridors are wide, both to accommodate bi-directional foot traffic and to allow for the transfer of bulky trade goods from one race’s enclave to another.
  • At the same time, accommodation must be made for races who are significantly smaller.

Okay, you’ve come up with a general plan. Now you need ways to convey that vision (and the purpose behind it) to your readers. Take, for example, the Traders’ Market in REFUGE. Unlike the individual enclaves provided for each visiting race, or the administrative and engineering sections of Tradepoint which are inhabited mainly by the Prett, the Traders’ Market is the reason for Tradepoint’s existence, the communal area where races display and exchange their goods. To forestall trouble, the Prett have built several preventative details into the structure of the Traders’ Market:

  • Illumination in the aisleways is bright.
  • Prett security staff are always present, circulating through the Traders’ Market.
  • Each race has its own free-standing maartza (shop).
  • Aisles between the various maartzas are wide, even by Tradepoint standards.
  • Only one race of customers is allowed inside a maartza at a time.
  • When a customer enters, all four edges of the entryway to the maartza light up and stay lit until the customer leaves.
  • There is a hefty fine for entering a maartza when its entryway is already lit. 

In a location like Tradepoint, policies exist for a reason. You can use the physical structure of the place to make the reason for those policies clear to the reader. Details like these can transform simple, potentially boring architectural details into plot points just waiting to erupt.

Gredin's stones, Gredin's most prized possession and a fine intro to Blacklocke's next point. Picture depicts a small, conch-like bowl with stones inside, on the left, and on the right text that says "From early childhood on, Gredin gathers small stones that 'call out' to her. Thirteen such stones come with her to Tradepoint. And they have messages for her, if Gredin willl listen.
Gredin’s stones, Gredin’s most prized possession and a fine intro to Blacklocke’s next point

THINGS

The objects you describe in your story contribute a rich depth to the world your characters inhabit. The category of ‘things’ may sound mundane but that’s far from the reality for the writer – or the reader!

Often, it’s the ‘things’ your characters take for granted or rely on routinely that make your story believably fantastic. Take the world of Star Trek. We couldn’t imagine those characters without their transporters, phasers, hyposprays and tricorders. The highly technical world of Star Trek is made real through the characters’ utter faith in and commonplace reliance upon those objects, and their attitudes help persuade us to believe, right along with them. 

What objects do your characters use as a matter of course that may be totally unknown to the reader? What makes those items important to your characters? How are they utilized? Do these objects have properties that make them unique?

In REFUGE, the first book of The Tradepoint Saga, our main characters are the Vennans, a race that eschews science. Instead, each Vennan possesses an inner wellspring of energy so potent and versatile that it precludes the need for scientific devices. The visible manifestation of this energy can be seen in the hlaos and hlettes the Vennans wear – objects of great power and beauty. While these look like a simple ribbon of gold (a hlao) or a delicate armband (a hlette), these supernatural objects imbue Vennans with such impressive, inexplicable abilities that the science-based alien races cannot simply dismiss Vennans as an ignorant or primitive race.

What resources do the characters in your story use (and possibly take for granted)? What do they possess in abundance? What is scarce? The Tradepoint Saga is set on a trading station in space, one where cultures from many different worlds interact, and the goods that each alien race brings to trade are a reflection of those individual cultures. When creating the Traders’ Market on Tradepoint, we asked ourselves a number of questions, including:

  • What is each race seeking? 
  • What are they willing to trade for it?
  •  What does that exchange reveal about their priorities and background?

Imagining the goods that might be available for trade generated new questions for us. Material trade goods run the gamut: some items are common and are universally useful, while others are specialized or rare, and are therefore highly prized for their scarcity.

Nevertheless, transporting goods always involves certain practical considerations. So we also asked ourselves:

  • How bulky are these items? 
  • How heavy are they? 
  • Are the items perishable? Fragile?
  • If an item looks unusual, how can we best describe it to our readers? 
  • Why are these items valued by the race who wants to obtain them?
  • Why is the race who provides these items willing to part with them?

Fueled by such questions, we found images and created descriptions of Tradepoint’s various alien goods, then placed the information on our website, the better to share our vision with our readers. One example we show there is kithris, a redolent and enticing spice produced by grinding a particular nut down to a grainy powder. Kithris is a spice that only Mamoran traders offer for sale and trade. It weighs almost nothing, it keeps indefinitely, and it enhances the flavor of any food or drink to which it’s added. Given these traits, it’s highly prized and universally appealing as a trade good, which makes kithris a veritable gold mine for the Mamora.

Ultimately, each trade comes down to:

  • Who has it?
  • Who wants it?
  • What will they give for it?

IN THE END All the world’s a stage… and you get to design it. Take nothing for granted as you ponder what to include and exclude in the construction of your story’s world. Give your imagination free rein. Use your mind’s eye. In fact, utilize all of your senses as you imagine what unique sights, textures, aromas, tastes, and sounds might come into play. Who knows what clever and enthralling things you may create in the process, or where that deceptively simple formula of person + place + thing may take you?


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