Writing a story, building a world – part 4: WHEN

Read WHO, WHAT, WHERE in previous installments.

Coninuing –

Question 4: WHEN

It isn’t a coincidence that stories told to all of us in our childhood used to begin with “Once upon a time…” The concept of a moment in which a tale takes place grounds us and makes the story settle into its context. And that’s immensely important.

I have a t-shirt that someone gave me (as someone who is a confirmed word nerd) which bears the words, “The past, the present and the future walk into a bar. It was tense.” And yeah, that’s funny – but putting a pin into a timeline and finding out just WHEN in the universe your story takes place is sometimes a tense affair, yeah. And sometimes people MISS.

I remember standing in a bookshop once with a couple of friends and we happened to be just in front of a shelf which housed the Jean Auel Ayla books – of which I’d read a couple, and then quit because, well, as I said to my friends at the time, they were “sex and shopping in the Stone Age” ( a bookstore employee standing close by overheard and liked that so much that he asked if he could use it as a tag to put on the shelf next to the books. I am not sure to this day if he was a subversive or if he genuinely thought that a compliment…).

There came a point where (despite all the proper chronologically-grounding Stone Age tchotchkes) I just stopped feeling grounded enough in the Stone Age to take any of it seriously any more. Those books were aimed at a particular audience, and they succeeded immensely with that audience, I guess, but for me… in the end… it wasn’t enough.

I know plenty of people like me – people who will trip over something in a story or a movie and then find themselves so bothered by it that they simply cannot go on with the story presented. Someone I know once walked out of an otherwise perfectly good movie because it was set in a certain era of history and the windows of the castle in which the story was happening (this was a supposedly a STRAIGHT historical drama) had glass in them – and castles in that time period, the real castles in that time period, hadn’t had that. For myself, I remember another movie, one where there was a scene in which people set little rush boats with a candle in them adrift into a river, as a sort of a fertility rite – except that these particular medieval people did so from a very very very modern concrete pier.


Chronological continuity aside, though, there are stories which are simply grounded into a historical time and which would lose out if they were divorced from their time. Books like “Gone with the Wind” or “Les Miserables” exist because they unfold against a particular bit of the historical canvas – and sure, there are plenty of romances out there, even plenty of romances which play out in the Antebellum South for instance, but there is a reason that GWTW has become so very iconic. It maps onto both a moment of time and a mindset, and it does that with exquisite precision. Timing is everything.

Your characters’ actions and reactions and ideas fit in the time of their storylines. This isn’t always easy.

There are numerous books set into slave-owning societies of the past, from Roman times to Georgia in the twilight of the Old South, in which the author tries to make their characters more acceptable to the modern reader by simply transferring a modern set of opinions onto the characters.

Like it or not, if you are writing about a Roman patrician family they probably didn’t spent their lives agonizing over the inner torments of their slaves. Making those patrician characters wring their hands over slavery is simply not accurate, no matter how much our modern sensibilities demand that self-enlightened reaction today. But then you’re faced with the problem of making your unthinking slave owner palatable and sympathetic to your modern reader… and uh. You see the difficulties. There are trade-offs to be made.

Writing about things from the past means researching that past minutely to the best of your ability. Writing tales set in the future does free you from that – but then it has other demands. You’re creating an entirely new society out of whole cloth, and you’d better be sure of your weave.

Staying in the present day isn’t always easy, either, because not everyone lives in the same world just because they live in the same moment of it. The way someone else might look at any given idea or issue in your story may vary considerably from your own vision of that thing even though you are both living in the same timeframe.

I know, this is starting to sound like that old chestnut about the millipede – when the insect is just thinking about moving it does so without a problem but as soon as it starts paying attention to individual legs it gets tangled up and cannot move at all. There is something to be said for not hobbling oneself as a writer completely by overthinking everything. Still, thought must be given. There’s a clock on the wall, and it moves inexorably – and even societies you completely invent will have roots in some time and place which may have existed somewhere on this world at some point. You can’t help that, it’s part of your heritage as a human being and your knowledge of the history, and progress through it, of your species. That is where you find your inspiration and your information.

It isn’t incumbent upon you to adhere absolutely to a time that you may have picked – there is such thing as poetic licence and you need that because otherwise no fantasy would ever be written at all.

But if you pick a particular time and place (or a facsimile thereof) you have to realise that you are picking up its baggage as well, and if you change the rules and the sensibilities of the era which you have picked you’d better have a good reason to do so, and you’d better be very very good. Otherwise there will be readers out there who will inevitably start picking at the fabric of your story around the holes you will have left in it.

In The Were Chronicles, I did not specify a particular date – but the implications of a modern world are woven into the story. There are laptops, and cellphones. There is advanced science. There is also a sense of history-that-came-before and of a place where my Were critters might have come from, once upon a time. I haven’t written THAT story – the myth of origin – but my characters know it, and live with it as the basis of their modern lives. I’ve built up a layered time for my world – a sense of history, a moment of now, and even a hint of an unfolding future which may well get explored in future books because this story has taken on a life of its own now.

But when I set out to write these books, they belonged in a world that is very similar to our own here and now – almost exactly alike, in fact, except for the fact that the Were are present in it as they are not in our own reality. I was exploring a very contemporary set of issues and for that I needed a contemporary time – and so that is the channel into which this story flowed.

It just worked out, serendipitously, that the first book (“Random”) does deal with the past, by building up the story of Celia, and with how that past is impacting the immediate-present existence of my characters; the second book (“Wolf”) is much more of an immediate book, very focused, very grounded in the present moment, with things literally happening as we are watching; and the third book, (“Shifter”) is concerned with what is now as a basis for what is to come.

It just worked out that my three books – while all set in the present – have somehow also covered the gamut of the past-present-future of my world in the entire story arc. Sometimes the world of writing comes knocking at your door with real gifts in its hands.

Find out more about the Were Chronicles here.



About Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander's life so far has prepared her very well for her chosen career. She was born in a country which no longer exists on the maps, has lived and worked in seven countries on four continents (and in cyberspace!), has climbed mountains, dived in coral reefs, flown small planes, swum with dolphins, touched two-thousand-year-old tiles in a gate out of Babylon. She is a novelist, anthologist and short story writer who currently shares her life between the Pacific Northwest of the USA (where she lives with her husband and two cats) and the wonderful fantasy worlds of her own imagination. You can find out more about Alma on her website (www.AlmaAlexander.org), her Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/AuthorAlmaAlexander/), on Twitter (https://twitter.com/AlmaAlexander) or at her Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/AlmaAlexander)


Writing a story, building a world – part 4: WHEN — 2 Comments

  1. they were “sex and shopping in the Stone Age” ( a bookstore employee standing close by overheard and liked that so much that he asked if he could use it as a tag to put on the shelf next to the books. I am not sure to this day if he was a subversive or if he genuinely thought that a compliment…).

    Probably thought it would attract the readers who would buy it.

  2. Pingback: Writing a story, building a world – part 6: HOW? | Book View Cafe Blog