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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, or her blog, Tales from the Typeface She’s one of the co-organisers of the Milford SF Writers’ Conference in the UK

Writer Links

Twitter: @jaceybedford




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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

Diagramming your book’s conflicts

This weekend I knuckled down to sorting out the overall plot of my work-in-progress, Serpent’s Tooth. I have a setting, several main characters and some ideas for conflicts, but nothing was pinned down, hence my struggles to get on with writing the book. This is pretty par for the course with me; I tend to get bogged down in plot possibilities because there are so many directions the story could go in and I can’t decide which one is best!

I started with my usual process of “thinking aloud” on paper, and suddenly the pieces began to fall into place: I knew who my main opposing factions would be, and that there would be factions within those factions, divided loyalties, betrayals, etc. It was starting to get quite complicated, so at the suggestion of my writer friend Adrian Faulkner I broke out my trial copy of Scapple, a simple diagramming program for Mac and Windows, produced by those lovely people who brought us Scrivener. Read more

Generating words for your conlang

One of the most labour-intensive stages of creating a conlang (constructed language) is generating the masses of words required, and also of ensuring you have enough distinct words that use the full range of options that you designed into the language. Thankfully it’s a trivial task to do this with a computer program, and being a developer myself I’ve written a simple script that can be used to generate an “instant dictionary”.

Now obviously you’re not constrained by the output; if you see a word that doesn’t feel right for the assigned meaning, then of course you’re free to swap it for something else. Use your auto-generated dictionary as a jumping-off point to get you going, rather than a shackle for your creativity! Read more

Conlanging 101

Last week I gave a very brief history of language construction and mentioned some well-known examples from fantasy, such as Sindarin and Dothraki. If you’ve been inspired by any of these books or TV shows to create a language of your own, read on! Note that I shall be focusing on creating languages for use in fiction; whilst conlanging for its own sake is a great hobby, it can be easy to get carried away and create something too arcane for your readers to cope with.

Bear in mind also that language creation is a vast topic that can’t be covered in a single blog post; however I shall link to resources that will help you to take your first steps in this fascinating hobby. Read more

Constructed languages in fantasy & SF

A couple of years ago I blogged about how I’d gone about creating the languages for my alternate history fantasy series Night’s Masque. At the time, The Alchemist of Souls was undergoing final edits, so I felt it was a bit early to post any details of the languages. However, this month being the fortieth anniversary of the death of J R R Tolkien, I felt it was high time I did a new series of blog posts on the topic of conlangs (constructed languages).

In this first post, I’m going to cover the history of conlanging in SFF. In following weeks I’ll talk about how you might go about creating your own language, and finish up with some software tools that can help you with the task. Read more

Back to school: fountain pens

I know a bunch of my writing friends share my passion for lovely pens and notebooks, so I thought I’d share one of my collections with you…

When I was 11 I was admitted to the local girls’ grammar school, a somewhat old-fashioned establishment with pretensions of grandeur. It was the first school I’d been to that had a uniform, and to go with the blazer and tie (yes, we wore ties, like blokes!) my parents bought me a leather satchel and a fountain pen. On our first day we were sternly instructed that all homework must be written in fountain pen; the lowly biro was for rough work only. Sadly I don’t have that original fountain pen any more (though I do still have the satchel), but my love of this very traditional writing implement has only grown with the years. Read more

Guest post: Django Wexler on point-of-view

This week I’m very pleased to welcome Django Wexler, whose epic gunpowder fantasy featuring a military commander hero and a cross-dressing heroine sounds right up my readers’ street!

Reconnaissance: Point of View as a Precious Resource

First, the Universal Caveat—this is, of course, only the opinion of one reader/writer, so please take it for what it’s worth.

I read a lot of books, as you might expect.  In fact, ever since getting involved with the writer/publisher/book reviewer blog-tweet-sphere-o-net, I have been deluged with more books than I can reasonably read.  There’s a pile of about fifty on the end of my desk right now, shaming me and threatening to collapse and knock over my lamp.

As a result, I’ve had to get a bit more ruthless about abandoning books in the middle if I’m not actually enjoying them.  I used to make a bit of a fetish about finishing books, out of a masochistic sense of duty, but the growth of the pile has made this impractical.  My new rule is that each book gets a hundred pages to hook me.  Recently, I found myself tossing several novels in a row, all for roughly the same reason—too many points of view.  So I thought I would talk a bit about what that means. Read more

New fantasy series: follow-along

I recently went back to the forums of Holly Lisle’s online Novel Writing School, where I was somewhat abashed to discover I’m somewhat of a poster girl for the courses (well, I did get a three-book deal out of the manuscript I put through How to Revise Your Novel!). When I mentioned I was using the How to Think Sideways writing course materials to help me with the new series I was planning, one of the moderators thought that students would find it interesting to hear what I was doing. However I don’t just use Holly’s materials, and I thought it might be confusing to students on the course if I talked about my own methods on the official forum. So, if you’re here via a link from the HtTS forums (and even if you’re not), welcome! Read more

Lyle’s Three Laws of Magic

Yesterday I came across an article about creating a magic system for your novel, and on impulse tweeted to say that I disliked the phrase “magic system” when applied to written fiction. This sparked a lively debate, and afterwards I thought it would be fun to codify my conclusions in a set of rules.

OK, they’re not so much rules, more what you’d call…guidelines 🙂

1. Magic cannot be all-powerful

"The Wizard", by Sean McGrath
"The Wizard", by Sean McGrath

I think most writers (and readers) understand this one. If magic can do anything, there’s no narrative tension, because there’s no problem it cannot solve. There must be at least some hard limits on what it can do. Popular limits include: only some people can perform magic; they have specific talents and can only do certain types of magic; powerful magic comes with a high cost. Many fantasy worlds combine all three, but it doesn’t really matter what you choose as long as it stops magic from being a “get out of gaol free” card.

You don’t have to define down to the last detail what magic can do, but you really, really need to know what it can’t do.

2. Magic that’s too logical becomes science

This is a more controversial one, and the point that provoked the Twitter discussion. As someone pointed out, this is the inverse of Clarke’s Law, i.e. “any sufficiently advanced magic system is indistinguishable from technology”.

I know there are some readers who love the Brandon Sanderson approach, i.e. highly detailed rules of magic, but to me all that does is make magic an extension of the science of your universe. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – I’m often tempted to create a fantasy setting that, like Discworld, is literally how pre-modern people believed their universe to be – but I think you as a writer need to be aware that that’s what you’re doing.

More to the point, as I said on Twitter, the reader shouldn’t be able to hear the rattle of a ghostly D20 or envisage a “magic points gauge” falling. Don’t make your magic so mundane and mechanistic that it reads like a poorly written RPG novelisation!

3. Magic should tend towards entropy

What I mean by this is that, whilst your character may think of magic as a tool that can get him out of trouble, you as the writer should be thinking of ways to use it to get him into trouble 🙂

A lot of fantasy worlds do this in a very simplistic way, by making magic illegal, which is fine if that fits your setting. It can also be used for comic effect, e.g. the archetypal inept apprentice who tries to light a candle but instead makes it explode! However it can also be done more subtly, by setting up unintended consequences. That thunderstorm spell over the battlefield might break the ranks of the enemy, but the resultant rain could easily cause the nearby river to flood and wash away the bridge the characters were relying on to get to the castle in time to stop the usurping prince from slaughtering the rest of the royal family.

You can also have magic be just plain unreliable. The reason that so many humans throughout history have believed in the reality of magic is the same reason that gambling is addictive: it works just often enough, and with sufficiently gratifying results, that our optimistic brains overlook all the failures. You don’t want to go too far with this, though. If your magic randomly fails at a crucial moment, it can feel as clunky as a story in which the hero’s mobile phone batteries go flat just when he needs to make that vital call. At the risk of contradicting rule 2, failure needs to be logical or at least plausible, rather than completely random.


So, there you have it – my three laws of magic for fantasy writers. Go ahead and break them if you want to, though – after all, it’s your universe!