Navigate / search

Worldbuilding from the Coffee Up – a guest post by Jacey Bedford

I first met Jacey Bedford at Eastercon 2012, when we had the nerve-wracking pleasure of being newbie authors on a panel with none other than George R R Martin. We both write historical fantasy, but in Jacey’s case it was her space opera series that got picked up first. Since I’m currently winding up my Vorkosigan Saga marathon, it seemed like the perfect time to have Jacey drop by to tell us about her first novel!

World-building from the Coffee Up

I write both far future science fiction and fantasy, so building new worlds for my characters to play in is a task which crops up early in my writing process. I say early, but it’s not the first thing. Setting, character and plot are inseparable. One drives the other. In Empire of Dust, a space opera set five hundred years in the future, the first scene that came to me was of a lone telepath, in fear for her life. The surroundings that coalesced out of my imagination were bleak and grey, utilitarian and largely featureless except where humans had tried to imprint their personality with improvised artwork on the doors of their one-room apartments. A space station, I thought, and the rest grew from there.

The big picture is (usually) easy. Broad brush strokes quickly conjure a canvas of space ships, colony worlds, interstellar trade, transport hubs and jump gate travel. Then I have to interrogate the setting to find out how it got to be that way. I need to know more about politics, history and economics. What happened to human history from the present day to the time of the story? A third world war? Climate change? The Middle East aflame? Russia marching into Poland? Catastrophic meteor strike? Eruption of the supervolcano under Yellowstone?

In a story that contains multiple worlds I have to figure out what colour the skies are on each of them, whether there are any strange creatures such as my trikallas, weird floating beasties, lighter than air and with a taste for copper, and whether the basic topography of a place is going to drive the way my human characters interact with it. Are there earthquakes or volcanoes? What are the weather patterns? Is there potable water? How long are the days? Are there any wild seasonal swings? How many moons? How do the moons affect tides? How will the planetary ecosystem react with imported flora and fauna? What natural resources are available?  What steps might have to be taken to protect native wildlife and ecosystems from the invaders?

In Empire of Dust most of the colonies are controlled by one or another of the megacorporations which have become more powerful than any one planetary government, even that of Earth. Some colonies are well established, home to humans for three hundred years or more. Others are raw; their first generation settlers still struggling to come to terms with a new (and sometimes hostile) environment: fifty hour days; solar storms that render simple radio transmissions unreliable; incompatible botany and biology.

That’s all part of the broad canvas, but what about the detail?

My morning ritual is a small bone china cup of milky coffee laced with honey and topped with a layer of double cream, plus a warm pain au chocolat. Healthy breakfast? Hey, I’m a writer. That is a healthy breakfast. It contains two of the five major food groups, coffee and chocolate. Three if you count the bread.

So when adding the detail into Empire of Dust I wondered what my characters, Cara and Ben, would drink in the morning and what the logistics, politics and economics of providing their preferred beverage might be.

If there’s a trade in coffee the Megacorporations will want their cut. They have grown powerful following on from what’s historically known as ‘The Great Colony Grab.’ (Earthlings take note: that’s what you get for not investing in national space programmes; the commercial boys take over and do it bigger and better.) Since pioneer Abelard Henning made the first successful foldspace jump between Earth and Mars using a pair of prototype jump gates in 2190, humans have spread across the galaxy. But there’s a technical problem that no one has yet been able to overcome.

Platinum is required as a catalyst for jump gates. Unfortunately with each jump a small but significant amount is lost. Platinum is found everywhere, of course, but only in small quantities. It takes eight to ten tons of raw ore (and six months) to produce just one pure ounce of platinum. Even now in our pre-jump gate society, platinum is used in commercial applications in about 20% of all consumer goods, yet platinum-flow is tight. In fact, if platinum mining ceased today, we would have above-ground reserves of less than one year. All the platinum ever mined throughout history would fill a room of less than 25 cubic feet. Add jump gates and interstellar trade into that equation and the ceaseless quest for platinum is going to be brutal.

Platinum keeps the whole interconnected colony system functioning. If my guys want to drink coffee and eat chocolate on a space station, there’s a cost in platinum of getting it there, so it had better be worth it. The cheapest beverage to transport is made from dehydrated powder, vac-packed, and massively concentrated so that a pinch is enough to make a pot-full. Does it taste good? That depends on your viewpoint.

Cara Carlinni is an Earth girl even though she grew up being dragged around the galaxy by her parents, a marine biologist (Mum) and a hydro engineer (Dad). Her tastes run to real coffee when she can get it, but if she has to settle for CFB (coffee flavoured beverage) she’ll make it nice and strong. Otherwise, if it’s all that’s available, caff will have to do.

Reska (Ben) Benjamin grew up in a farming community on Chenon drinking readily available (and cheap) CFB. He likes it. Real coffee tastes bitter to him, so he’ll sweeten it with whatever’s available and soften it with cream if he has to drink it at all. Yes, he knows most people consider it a luxury import, so if they serve it up he’s going to be polite and choke it down.

Where does coffee come from? Not from Earth–not any more. The best coffee-growing regions were devastated when the geography of central Africa, the Americas and China was rearranged by multiple meteor strikes in 2375. One huge meteor was shattered on its way inbound. Most of the fragments missed our planet. The ones that didn’t miss were (eventually) survivable. However there were several years of no summer leading to global devastation that would have knocked humankind back to the stone age without help from the colonies.

The best coffee now comes from a planet called Blue Mountain, in the Tegabo system. It was settled by a breakaway bunch from Drogan’s World, so it isn’t owned by, or affiliated with any of the megacorps. That means there’s an extra tax if they want to distribute coffee via the regular trade routes. Fortunately for them there are some irregular trade routes courtesy of independent shippers. Smugglers? Who said anything about smugglers? Let’s call them entrepreneurs or free-traders.

Is all that in the book? Not really, except for Cara and Ben’s opposing taste in beverages and the pressing need for platinum. The thing is, dear reader, you don’t need to know all that to enjoy reading the book, but I need to know the background in order to write it. I need to know all of Earth’s history from the first successful moon base, engineered by the Chinese in 2041, to the Five Power Alliance which emerged as a global federal government in the reconstruction following the meteor strikes.

And what has happened to humans in five hundred years? Some have been genetically altered to be able to survive on marginal worlds, others have brain implants which enhance psionic abilities. And then there are those who haven’t had their genes tweaked, or artificial enhancements, who consider themselves pure. That in itself is a starting point for conflict.

Writing far future science fiction offers an unlimited number of possibilities and as I write the second book in the series (Crossways, due from DAW in August 2015) I’m able to explore more new worlds and new situations as my characters pursue a seemingly impossible goal.

Empire of Dust

DAW, November 2014

Is there anywhere in the galaxy that’s safe for a Telepath who knows too much?

Implanted with psi-tech technology, Cara Carlinni is on the run from Alphacorp, a megacorporation more powerful than any one planetary government. She knows her ex-boss can find her any time, mind-to-mind. Even though it’s driving her crazy she’s powered down and has been surviving on willpower and tranqs, tucked away on a backwater space station. So far, so good. It’s been almost a year, and her mind is still her own.

But her past is about to catch up with her, and her only choice is run or die. She gets out just in time thanks to Ben Benjamin, a psi-tech Navigator for Alphacorp’s biggest corporate rival, however it’s not over yet. Cara and Ben find themselves battling corruption of the highest magnitude. If they make a mistake an entire colony planet could pay the ultimate price.

Jacey Bedford

Jacey Bedford is a British author published by DAW. Her first novel, Empire of Dust, the first book in her Psi-tech Universe, launches on 4th November and her second, Crossways, a sequel, is due in 2015. She’s agented by Amy Boggs of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. She’s sold short stories on both sides of the Atlantic and you can find out more from her website at http://www.jaceybedford.co.uk, or her blog, Tales from the Typeface http://jaceybedford.wordpress.com She’s one of the co-organisers of the Milford SF Writers’ Conference in the UK http://www.milfordSF.co.uk

Writer Links

Twitter: @jaceybedford

Website: www.jaceybedford.co.uk

Blog: http://jaceybedford.wordpress.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jacey.bedford.writer

Book buy links:

NaNoPlaMo

This time last year I attempted NaNoWriMo despite being exhausted from attending two conventions in a row whilst suffering from a heavy cold. Needless to say I failed to finish – and I’ve been struggling to get my writing mojo back ever since.

With November looming once more I briefly considered giving NaNoWriMo a try, but I’ve done even less preparation than I did last year, which for me is a recipe for disaster. Also, given that I haven’t written a single sentence of fiction in months, attempting 1,667 words a day from a standing start is totally setting myself up for failure.

Thus, I have decided to use the NaNo vibe to set myself a target of planning a novel in November, which I will then write over the course of the winter. Here are my goals:

  1. To have a complete outline by November 30th
  2. To start writing the novel on December 1st, initially with a minimum target of 50 words per day.
  3. To increase the daily minimum until I’m writing at a productive rate

Now, 50 words might sound ridiculously low. Certainly it’s way too low to get a novel finished in a reasonable amount of time. The point is, it’s a minimum. If I feel like writing more, great! In fact I suspect that once I get going, my daily average is going to be way above that. I’ll probably not hit NaNoWriMo levels, except maybe on weekends, but that’s OK as long as I’m making solid progress.

I’m deliberately setting the bar really, really low to begin with so that I can’t wriggle out of writing every day. Fifty words is almost nothing. A simple three-sentence paragraph is almost enough to hit that target. (<- 38 words) No, the 50-word minimum is precisely calculated to be low enough not to seem an unassailable target even when I’m really tired, but long enough to add substance to the story.

Before I wind up, I’d like to thank Peter Newman for running a “Getting Unstuck” workshop at BristolCon, which helped shake some of these ideas loose. I only signed up at the last minute, since as a pro I don’t usually have much interest in writing workshops, but I find I’m really missing being in a regular writers’ group and being able to talk craft issues with my peers. Sure I chat with writer friends at conventions, but we usually only talk about our works-in-progress in vague terms – we’re socialising, not engaging in critique.

So, that’s my plan for Winter 2014/15. I aim to post about my progress periodically – probably at least weekly, to keep myself on track. If all goes to plan, I’ll have a first draft completed next spring!

Book Anniversary giveaway

Since it’s been a whole year since I had any new fiction out – yikes! – I thought I’d cheer everyone up with another giveaway :)

This time last year I had two pieces published: the final volume of the Night’s Masque trilogy, plus a short story in the BFS anthology Unexpected Journeys. I wasn’t able to give away any books until December, as it took a while to receive my author copies, but this year I can mark the occasion in style… Read more

My BristolCon schedule

It’s my last convention of 2014 soon, and it looks like I’ll be going out with a bang. I have two panels at BristolCon, one of them as moderator. Since I know most of my fellow panellists pretty well by now, this is going to be a lot of fun!

Common Writing Problems Q&A (11am, Room 2)

When the wheels come flying off your story and it dives over a cliff in flames, how do you get it back on the road again? Editors see the same problems in fiction over and over again – we talk about YOUR problems, and give you suggestions to help you overcome them.

Robert Harkess (Mod), Gareth L. Powell, Terry Jackman, Anne Lyle, Snorri Kristjansson

Rogues and Ruffians, Pirates and Thieves (7pm, Room 1)

From Han Solo to Loki to Locke Lamora, the scoundrel has enduring appeal in SF and fantasy. What is it we all like about a bad boy (or girl?) Who are the best SFF rogues, are pirates better than thieves, and how do you write a good bad good guy without getting completely confused?

Anne Lyle (Mod), Huw Powell, Ben Jeapes, Gaie Sebold, Lor/Rudie

Hope to see you there!

Knitting and Geekery

My longest work-in-progress (in both senses of the word!)
My longest work-in-progress (in both senses of the word!)

When I was young – back in the Dark Ages! – knitting and crochet were all the rage, but then in the 80s they went into something of a decline in popularity. However they’ve seen something of a resurgence in recent years, helped no doubt by Ravelry, an amazing social-network-cum-marketing-site devoted to knitting, spinning and crochet, and of course the crazy art of yarn-bombing. It’s even spread into geekspace, with yarn stalls and stitch’n’natter sessions popping up at SFF conventions!

I learned to knit and crochet from my Mum, but she was so skillful and prolific that I didn’t have much incentive to knit for myself, so I turned to sewing and particularly embroidery. However in recent years the combination of aging eyesight and long hours on the computer has prevented me from enjoying the intricate designs I used to make, and in February this year I took up my knitting needles once more (or rather, bought new ones). Not only is knitting very relaxing, but unlike embroidery it results in useful items of clothing that mean you’re not so reliant on the whims of the fashion industry to supply the styles and colours you like.

But what has this to do with geekdom? Well, my initial motivation to knit again was to make a Doctor Who scarf like the one worn by my favourite Doctor, Tom Baker. It’s a really easy design, just garter stitch, so I can work on it whilst I watch DVDs of Tom Baker episodes – you can’t get much geekier than that! As you can see above, I’m not finished yet (there are 846 rows in the pattern, and that’s the shortest version!), but I’m getting there…

The Scarf isn’t the only geeky thing I’ve knitted, though. Because it was taking so long, I started looking for a simple toy to knit as an “instant gratification” project and came across a pattern for a knitted Iron Man. As a big fan of the Marvel movies, of course I had to make it! In fact it came out so well that I’m going to adapt the pattern to make a Captain America.

My most recent geeky project is my own – first ever! – design. I wanted a soft cover for my iPad Mini, preferably one without any buttons that would catch on other stuff in my backpack. I couldn’t find anything that fitted the bill so I turned to my recently learnt sock-knitting skills and used them to design what is basically a giant sock with a flap that tucks in to protect the iPad all round. I’m stupidly proud of it, having only been knitting seriously for about six months, and will be releasing the pattern soon (see below).

I have to admit that knitting is not only very relaxing after a day on the computer, it’s also addictive. I’ve been shamefully neglecting my writing in favour of hanging out on the Ravelry forums and searching for patterns – as a means of procrastination, it’s hard to beat. Hopefully the novelty will wear off eventually, because I really do need to get on with this latest book before everyone thinks I’ve retired from writing!

Don’t worry that this blog will turn into a knitting site, though – such is my current addiction that I’ve set up a dedicated knitting blog as an outlet* for my new passion. For the longest time I resisted the urge, fearing it would stop me from blogging here, but all it did was stop me from blogging altogether. So I’ve caved in, and I’m hoping this will free up some brain space to think about writing and fiction again. NaNoWriMo is looming, and I have nothing planned yet!

 

* The iPad Mini cozy will appear on my new blog in due course, as soon as I’ve covered a couple of other time-sensitive topics, like using conkers as clothes moth repellent. No, really!

FantasyCon 2014

This summer has been such a whirlwind of conventions, I feel like I hardly had time to recover from one before the next was upon me. It didn’t help that I developed a nasty case of con crud right after WorldCon, which is why I never got around to blogging about the fab time I had there. However I’ve finally managed to catch my breath, so here’s my review of this year’s FantasyCon, held in York.

In a word (well, three): Best. FantasyCon. Ever.

Now admittedly I have a soft spot for FantasyCon anyway, because it’s where I pitched The Alchemist of Souls to Marc Gascoigne of Angry Robot, back in 2010. It’s also known for its awesome disco, of which more later. But this year the BFS, led by the redoubtable Lee Harris, delivered a fantastic convention worthy of our national genre organisation.

Firstly the venue, the Royal York Hotel, was far superior to the Britannia hotels of previous FantasyCons (albeit wickedly expensive to stay in!). Thankfully it’s conveniently placed just outside the city centre, right next to the railway station, so attendees on more limited budgets could stay elsewhere without major inconvenience. The central location also provided plenty of choices for eating out, and the opportunity to pop into the beautiful city centre if you needed a break from the convention.

Another nice touch was that instead of the goodie bag containing a couple of random paperbacks, there was a table piled with books from which one could choose (there was still a goodie bag, but with only the programme and a few small items). This was great, because at past FantasyCons I’d mostly ended up with horror books (yuck!), whereas this year I scored copies of The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie and Gideon’s Angel by Clifford Beal, both of them novels I actively want to read.

More importantly, the programme was excellent. In recent years I’d more-or-less stopped attending panels at FantasyCon because they retrod the same old topics I’d heard discussed a dozen times, but there was much more variety this year. Perhaps because of Guest of Honour Kate Elliott’s presence, there were lots of panels on different aspects of worldbuilding, which is a subject very much on my mind at the moment as I work on my new secondary world setting. My own panel, But Does it Make Sense: the Economics of Fantasy Worlds, with Kate Elliott, Kari Sperring, Tom Pollock and Leila , had a packed audience despite being at 10am on Saturday morning, and to be honest we could easily have talked for another hour about what turned out to be a fascinating topic.

Samurai McKenna demonstrates what to do when a peasant (Adrian Tchaikovsky) tries to grab your katana!
Samurai McKenna demonstrates what to do when a peasant (Adrian Tchaikovsky) tries to grab your katana!

Another topic that needed more than an hour was The Pen vs the Sword, in which four authors and practising martial artists – Juliet McKenna, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Fran Terminiello and Clifford Beal – talked about sword fights in fiction and demonstrated some cool moves. The panellists and audience ended up relocating to the (closed) bar next to the auditorium for more demonstrations – in fact our only complaint was that the panel should have been a demonstration with discussion, rather than a discussion with a few demonstrations, because it’s much easier to talk about the realities of fighting when you’re able to show it.

It wasn’t all serious panels, either. In addition to the ever-popular Just a Minute hosted by Paul Cornell, on Saturday evening I attended a live edition of Emma Newman’s podcast Tea and Jeopardy, where she interviewed screenwriter Toby Whithouse. I don’t know if they recorded it, but if not, it’s a shame – because now you’ll never know why the audience had to pretend to be chickens singing the Doctor Who theme…

And then there was the disco. This year we had a new DJ, my own editor Marc Gascoigne, who dipped into his vast record collection (and believe me, it’s big – I’ve seen it!) to bring us a mix of tracks from across the decades that left us exhausted but happy. An appropriately geeky highlight was 1988 No 1 hit single, Doctorin’ the TARDIS – complete with official dance. At first, most of the people still on the dance floor from the previous song gave this one a go, but it turned out to be a bit trickier than they’d expected, and soon there were only eight or ten of us dancing. For eight whole minutes. By the end, my legs were like jelly, but boy was it fun!

Next year, FantasyCon moves back to Nottingham, though thankfully not in the shabby Britannia Hotel. I shall be signing up as soon as my bank balance has recovered from this year’s expenses!

Nine Worlds 2014

This weekend (8th-10th August) I was at Nine Worlds Geekfest, a British convention very much in the mould of CONvergence. 2014 is only Nine Worlds’ second year, so it’s something of a work in progress, but it still manages to be one of the best of the UK circuit.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the convention is the programming. In addition to a strong books track, there were tracks on comics, games and various other fandoms (including steampunk, cosplay, Doctor Who and Joss Whedon), and even one for knitting – a welcome surprise, given my recent (re)take-up of the hobby. Some of the tracks were inevitably a little sparse, but with so much variety there was always plenty going on to choose from. Read more

We’re still not your bitches

Yesterday I received an intriguing email from a colleague at work, asking if I would write a 140-word short story for his niece for GISHWHES (a worldwide scavenger hunt hosted by Misha Collins of Supernatural fame), and offering a bottle of booze of my choice as a thank-you. Apparently, it was necessary for the story to be written by a previously published SF author, and I was the only one he knew personally. As my friends and Twitter followers know, I’m a big fan of Supernatural, and the task was so modest (especially in proportion to the reward!), I accepted. Read more

Friday Reads: The Sharing Knife: Beguilement, by Lois McMaster Bujold

For some reason I’ve been very slow in getting into Lois McMaster Bujold’s work; despite reading and enjoying Ethan of Athos many years ago, and loving The Curse of Chalion, it wasn’t until this year that I went beyond that. I was in a mood to read some SF as a palate-cleanser after so much fantasy, so I started her Miles Vorkosigan series at the beginning (of which more another day). Then I discovered there was a one-day conference on her work being held here in Cambridge just after WorldCon (when I happen to be off work), so I decided I’d better read more of her books before going! I bought a couple more of the SF series in ebook form, then remembered that her entire four-book fantasy series The Sharing Knife was gathering dust on my bookshelves (I bought them several years ago, from a work colleague).

The Sharing Knife is very different from your typical European-inspired fantasy – like Peter V Brett’s Demon Cycle, it has a very rural American flavour, like The Little House on the Prairie with monsters. However, whereas Brett’s series is all about the fight against the monsters, The Sharing Knife is basically a romance with a bit of monster-bashing on the side. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; Bujold is such a good writer that she can hook you with charming characters and domestic squabbles as easily as with heart-pounding action.

Read more

Plotting vs Pantsing – it’s not either/or

Over the past year or so I’ve been gearing up to write a new novel, and I’ve had to rediscover my own writing process all over again. Writing The Alchemist of Souls took so long that I barely remember how I got from vague idea to first rough draft, and whilst the two sequels are very recent, they were written so fast it’s something of a blur!

If anything, writing The Merchant of Dreams and The Prince of Lies gave me a very misleading view of how I work. I assumed that because I was able to come up with an outline fairly readily and only needed a couple of drafts before it was ready to polish up and send to my editor, that this was the way it would go for all future books. Turns out, not so much. Read more