Halfway across the country, though, in that same amount of time, Vaughn Roycroft is inventing worlds. He is making up a universe while I’m scorching breakfast toast.
Vaughn is the author of an epic historical fantasy trilogy. His books take place in a world roughly parallel to the Roman Empire in conflict with the Goths. Except his version is much better. There are ancestral swords. And romance. And sibling clashes. And kickass warrior chicks. Intrigued?
When he’s not inventing other worlds, Vaughn is making this one better, fostering genuine connections between writers. He is encouraging and supportive, and, though he might not know it, he’s convinced me more than once not to feed my current manuscript to the blender. I love his honest, open perspective in posts like “Losing My Religion”, “Taking the Longview”, and “What Building My House Taught Me About Writing”.
And if that’s not enough to wow you, Vaughn is also a contributor at Writer Unboxed, a correspondent for the WU newsletter, and a moderator on their Facebook page. When it comes to building worlds and communities, this man’s an inspiration. Plus, he’s been known to say, “why would I want to live in a world without magic?” Exactly!
Welcome to my Be Inspired series, Vaughn!
World-building Block by Block
By Vaughn Roycroft
Confessions of a Skin-Changer: I’m one. Are you? Whether you realize it or not, your readers want to slip into your protagonist’s skin. As readers, we all want the vicarious thrill of experiencing the dangers and exploits, and sorrows and triumphs of the heroes on the page, all from the safety of our armchair. If you write fiction, you are conspiring to aid and abet skin-changers. And I’m willing to bet most of you are avid skin-changers yourselves.
Geeky Extremes: One of the ways writers facilitate slipping into the characters’ skin is through immersion into their world. Most every successful story, no matter how familiar or foreign the setting, transports us to another place. The fans of the genre I chose to explore—epic historical fantasy—have an expectation for being transported to another world that is… well, fantastic, of course. We geeks like our world-building to be richly complex. We seek immersion in a world that is both familiar and yet utterly foreign and exotic.
In looking back on the process of building the world for my work, I can see how naturally the layers emerged and accrued. I started with a few simple ideas and two characters, and ended up with what I hope will be a satisfyingly complex and interesting world for my story. Although fantasy world-building is inevitably extreme, I’m hoping exploring the building blocks of my world will prove useful to writers of any genre.
From Questions to Quest: I’m also a carpenter, and I started writing my fantasy during jobsite downtime, often during inclement weather. Due to some speculation by a former mentor about the inspiration for Tolkien’s Riders of Rohan, I had been casually researching the Germanic tribe of the Goths. I decided the characters in the book I’d long planned to write would be Goths. The first thing I scribbled in a jobsite notebook was: “A young man is sent on an errand to the borderlands and is surprised when he encounters a group of foes. He is saved by a young female warrior. She is secretly watching over him.”
The beauty of those three sentences, from a world-building standpoint, is how many questions they provoke. What’s the errand? Who are the foes? Who is the female? Really, she’s a warrior? Why is she watching him? Why is it secret?
Books Make Good Foundation Blocks: So I spent the next several months reading everything I could find on the Goths. I soon learned that the internet, although useful in guiding research, has its limitations. I proceeded to check out every book I could find on Goths or related topics from all three of our area’s libraries, and took reams of notes. My questions about the Goths and their foes and women warriors led me to research the Romans, Scythians, Sarmations, Amazons, the Greek cities of the Black Sea region, and so on. Although I didn’t realize it then, my world-building had begun in earnest.
What’s in a Name? One of the first things I did, while I was still researching and outlining the story, was to come up with the names. Not just the names of characters, but also of their tribes, clans, cities, rivers, seas… even their horses. I decided I would use Gothic, Latin, and Old Norse root-words. The process was so enlightening, that I wrote an article about it here. In some cases, I’m not sure if the character sprang from the name or vice-versa.
Getting the Lay of the Land: Like many fantasy fans, I love maps, and drew several of my world, roughly based on the Black Sea region. But I utilized other visuals as inspiration as well. I collected scores of visuals—drawings and paintings from the era or based on it—and referred to them often while I wrote. Many writers are now collecting and organizing visuals on Pinterest, and I think it can be a real boon to world-building.
Macrocosmic Management: Many of the elements of my story were born from world-building, and for that I am grateful. It’s important that we strive to avoid allowing our world-building to distract from story. But if we stay true to our characters’ goals and motivations, the details of a richly described world can enhance the reader’s immersion into story, creating a more rewarding experience.
Thanks for having me, Lisa!
In the sixth grade, Vaughn’s teacher gave him a copy of The Hobbit, sparking a lifelong passion for reading and history. After college, life intervened, and Vaughn spent twenty years building a successful business. During those years, he and his wife built a getaway cottage near their favorite shoreline, in a fashion that would make the elves of Rivendell proud. After many milestone achievements, and with the mantra ‘life’s too short,’ they left their hectic lives in the business world, moved to their little cottage, and Vaughn finally returned to writing. Now he spends his days polishing his epic fantasy trilogy. You can learn more about Vaughn on his website.
And you? Are you a skin-changer? Do you enjoy being transported elsewhere? How do you build your worlds?