Be Inspired by Vaughn Roycroft

My mornings begin bleary. I’m not friendly before coffee. I slide a waffle on a plate, two scones on another and hand them to my kids, one eye half shut. I may or may not growl.

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? 

35 thoughts on “Be Inspired by Vaughn Roycroft

  1. It’s so great to get to know you and your writing better, Vaughn! I absolutely love the way you describe world building, particularly your names and “getting the lay of the land.” I absolutely love research and I get to do a lot of it for my current WIP — which takes place in the 1800s (my first foray into true historical writing) and your post gave me lots of good new ideas! Thank you so much. I love this series, Lisa. It’s so wonderful to better get to know some of the writers I see everyday around our writer neighborhood!

    • How exciting, forging into a new historical era for the first time. I’m giddy just thinking about it! 🙂 It is a great series, isn’t it? I’m so glad (and honored) that Lisa invited me. Thanks, Julia! Glad I could be of help with your new venture. Good luck laying those blocks!

    • This series has been so much fun. It’s been a treat to get to know you, Vaughn, and several other writer friends.

  2. Interesting timing of this post, Vaughn. I’m listening to a book I read a number of years ago (I listen when I cook–it takes the sting out of having to quit writing to create a meal) and in my reading time, finishing a different book. Both of these stories force me into uncomfortable places as I put on the characters’ skin. And last night I told my husband I had to put down the audio book because it transported me into the story world too well and in the process made my skin itch. I’ll go back to it–to both books–because a good story isn’t just about entertainment, is it? It’s about being transported, thinking thoughts and dreaming dreams we might not have without that peek into another’s world, another’s motivations.

    • “…I had to put down the audio book because it transported me into the story world too well and in the process made my skin itch.”

      Love that, Normandie, and know the feeling well. You’re right, it’s not just entertainment. In her great book, Wired for Story, Lisa Cron says, “Story allows us to simulate intense experiences without actually having to live through them.” I believe she’s right, that it’s a survival instinct that leads us to seek story. Thanks for the cool comment. So glad you enjoyed the post, you skin-changer, you! 😉

      • I’m going to second the praise for Lisa Cron. I just finished Wired for Story and found it to be one of the most insightful craft books I’ve read. I’m using a lot of the ideas and concepts in my revisions now.

  3. It was fascinating to learn more of a writers process and the amount of research and detail that goes into building the many layers of a story.

    PS I’m sitting here still bleary eyed . . . my breakfast was cookies with a mug of tea!

  4. Pingback: Redirect to Lisa Ahn’s Tales of Quirk & Wonder « Vaughn Roycroft's Blog

  5. Vaughn, I so enjoyed getting this peek at how you write and research. It feels a bit like a template for creating a realistic fantasy world — thanks very much for sharing!

  6. I want to thank Lisa, not just for having me, but for such a wonderful introduction. I am humbled and honored, my friend. I feel like you should be able to see me blushing from halfway across the country, even with bleary eyes.

    • Ha! You’ve saved my manuscript more than once, though you might not know it. And I thought I saw a red glow in the west — must have been the blush. 🙂

  7. Vaughn, another wonderful post. You are a true inspiration and a kindred spirit. I love how you liken writers to skin-changers. I never thought about it before, but the analogy totally fits.

    Maps, names, research, fantasy, it all makes me drool…what can I say, I embrace the geek side. 🙂

    • Oh, I know all about you and your maps, my fellow skin-changing geek-friend. 😉 I know how busy you are with Pretty Dark Nothing being released soon, and working on the sequel, but I really do hope you get back to that fantasy someday soon. And I want to see those maps! Thanks for embracing your geek side here today, Heather! 🙂

  8. Worldcraft 101 by Vaughn Roycroft, although said author would choose an infinitely better title. What an inspiring post, but then again your posts always are! Your natural gift for sharing what you’ve learned, so eloquently, has created a wonderful legacy of support for others. And look how far you’ve come! –from the “on the job” note-taking to a full-fledged author and mentor extraordinaire.

    “We seek immersion in a world that is both familiar and yet utterly foreign and exotic.” Key point!!! You hit that nail square. Fantasy is very, very difficult to read unless the grounding “familiarity” is present in some form–and it’s why your series will appeal across genres.

    I’m a skin-changer from way back. There is nothing more satisfying than slipping into another realm where I live infinite lives and forge maximum journeys. The only downside is when the adventure comes to an end. I think that’s the reason I write– to prolong the experience endlessly. It’s a joy like no other.

    Thank you, Lisa and Vaughn for a wonderful post. I so enjoyed it.

    • I love Vaughn’s metaphor of being a skin-changer as we read, and your extension here — I think that’s probably why I write as well. 🙂

  9. I really enjoy looking back at those early days, those cryptic lines in my early outline and notes, to see what came of them. I clearly remember seeing something about how rare and expensive swords were in the Germanic world, and how they were often coveted heirlooms. The same book spoke of how they would identify swords by hanging a rune-ring from the hilt. That snippet from a dusty old library book led to a major plot element for the series.

    Glad you pulled that word, familiar, out of that sentence, D. I think it’s key, especially to successful historical fantasy. And how did I know you were a skin-changer? Thanks so much for your awesome comment, my friend!

  10. Dang it, Vaughn! As I sit here on the best coast with my coffee and Rice Krispie treat, planning on slipping into the something-a-little-more-comfortable skin of a novel I’m reading, you come along with your inspiration. “Buildyourworldbelieveinmagicyoucandoit” you cheer. Thanks for ruining the lazy day I had planned.

    • You’re one to talk! Your work always lets me slip into a I-always-have-the-best-funniest-response-to-any-situation skin. Your characters are great to wear! (And talk about vicarious! They’re chicks, too. 😉 ).

      Sorry for ruining your poolside reading plan, Dee. Hope you still have on flip-flops. (Um… you’re not going to let that Rice Krispie treat go to waste, are you?)

    • Rice crispie treats here, tea and cookies from Kathryn — now I’m hungry AND my lazy day is ruined too. Nice to meet you here, Dee. Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  11. Hey Vaughn,
    I confess, I’m a “name-a-holic.” Everywhere I go I collect names. I’ve got them on scattered bits and scraps of paper, in notebooks and in long collections of names saved in MSWord. I collect them, then I break them apart and blend them and sometimes massage them. I’ve created some really exciting names for New Hope Chronicles book two that way and I can hardly wait to use them for my other-worldly characters. What fun!

    • It is fun, isn’t it, Pat? I like naming and titles so much, I even titled every chapter of all four of my manuscripts. Glad you enjoyed the post. Happy naming! 🙂

  12. While I’m not a huge fan of fantasy/sci-fi/sword-n-stuff, I am a huge fan of Vaughn. I so appreciate all the research he’s done to create his books and his “world.” Some of this genre just make it all about costumes and sword fights and galloping along. I’m often left wondering, “Yeah, but what did they eat for dinner?” or “What was the family unit like?” and such. I have a feeling Vaughn has created a world that we can really sink our teeth into.

    • Thanks for the vote of confidence, Karen. Your wondering about food and family really reminds me of Don Maass’s post on WU today, about including warmth in your work. Did you see it? If not, I hope Lisa doesn’t mind my throwing the link in here. It’s exceptional.

      Anyway, I loved the details of my Goth research, including what they ate and what their family life was like, and tried to include those details where I could. Thanks again for your great observation! 🙂

  13. Cool post, Vaughn. I’m really intrigued by your Goths. And by the Greek cities of the Black Sea region. You’re painting pictures with words.

    • Thanks, Bernadette! I’m terrible with a brush, so it’s a good thing I have this word option for painting. 😉 Glad you’re intrigued. I know I am by the era. 🙂

  14. A fascinating post. I love to hear about other writers’ processes.

    I’ve been getting in the skins of fictional characters for most of my life. I’ve laughed and loved, cried and ached, with them. I get so deeply involved that I can’t bear it when they are embarrassed in public (which makes watching romantic comedies far harder than it should be). I’ve gone around with an invisible wound to my heart for days when a loved character dies or suffers a loss.

    And, yes, I love to be immersed in another, different world–whether it’s fantasy, science fiction, or history. The scope of epic anything is something that I’m slowly working my way up to as a writer. I care deeply about world-building, but so far I confine it to small segments and small stories–one faith out of many, one city out of thousands, one sub-sub-group out of several.

    • Wow, Rabia, you sound like my kind of skin-changer! I’m the same. As a kid I could hardly stand to watch Lucille Ball’s The Lucy Show, because so much of the humor relied on embarassment. And I’m often long afflicted by a character’s death–particularly my own.

      Great idea, focusing on small segments. I find it helpful to compartmentalize the world of my own sprawling epic. For example, when characters are in the city vs. the forests, which culture they belong to, etc. I try to immerse myself in that setting, and not think about the rest. Some days it’s difficult, so I even spring ahead to work on another scene if necessary.

      Good luck working your way toward epic. You’re wiser than I was. I plunged into a raging sea and then learned to swim. You are going about learning to swim in more accommodating waters. 🙂 Thanks for reading and for your very cool comment!

      • That’s a good way of handling complex worldbuilding. Makes me think that a huge sprawling epic might not be as bad as I thought. It’s the whole How To Eat an Elephant principle at work.

        I’m much better (more hardened?) about the public-embarrassment scenes in movies and shows now. Time was that I had to run out of the room. Now I usually avert my eyes, pick up a book for 5 minutes, or just squirm in my seat. 😀

  15. I’m definitely a skin-changer. I love being transported, but in Entanglement, which I haven’t finished yet, I found that building a world where the ‘rules’ are different from this one gave me a little headache. That’s why I made it small, perhaps a little claustrophobic. I’m lucky that no one who’s read it so far has complained about that. Maybe they didn’t notice. Whew!

    I appreciate the insights and the tips here. My thanks to Mr. Roycroft.

    • You’re right, that having a different set of rules can be so difficult. Maybe it’s why I chose to keep mine a pretty straight historical, which was difficult enough. Since your readers aren’t noticing the tight boundaries, you must’ve done a good job of staying focused on story. Which is great!

      Thanks for reading, glad it was helpful. Good luck finishing your project!

  16. I read to be transported. I think that’s why science fiction and fantasy are my favorite genres. The possibilities are endless.

    I love Vaughn’s explanation of the process and how each piece fits together to make the new world. For me, world building is one of the most exciting parts of writing a story. The world leads to more questions- who would live in that environment, what would their customs be as a result of the world in which they live? I love exploring these ideas, and hearing how other writer’s approach the task. Thanks for sharing Lisa and Vaughn!

    • Love those endless possibilities, Nicole! 🙂 It’s one of my favorite parts of writing as well. Isn’t it cool how one think leads to another, and how the questions that arise become a part of the warp and weft of the woven fabric of story? Can’t wait to explore the worlds of your work, my friend. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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