Building a Better Fantasy City with Ex Novo

I’ve enthused before about the joys of world-building games like Microscope and Watching the World Die. I love the way that random chance and the structure of a rule set can lead to rich, surprising places that feel organic, coherent, and interesting.

I recently needed to develop the setting for a new story, and as it was set in a city I decided to try out a game designed for this very purpose – Ex Novo by Martin Nerurkar and Konstantinos Dimopoulos.

Ex Novo is simple to play and takes only a few hours. Most importantly given recent circumstances, you can play it solo.  I was creating my city during lockdown, and while my cat does like to play with dice, he’s not so great at urban planning.

Play turned out to be pretty simple. You decide a few basic parameters, including the size and age of your settlement. Then you roll dice and check a couple of tables to determine the terrain it’s founded in and why it’s there. After that, you play a series of rounds in which you roll more dice, look up the results on tables, and add features to the map depending upon those results.

Those randomised additions might sound like a recipe for something disjointed, but that’s not how the game works. Every random choice is both specific and open to interpretation, accompanied by questions that invite you to flesh out the details. Role 325 and you’re adding a new trade route, represented by a resource on the map, but what the resource is, where it goes, who it’s traded with and how, these are all open to interpretation. Just adding that resource to the map creates a relationship between it and other parts of the city, which encourages answers that built on what came before.

It helps that the example game plays a little loose with the rules, in the interests of a better narrative. This encourages flexibility, adding extra details while benefiting from the structure the rules bring.

I’d expected this game to just create a map, but it’s more than that. It creates a history for the city, a history tied to that map. It also creates political factions and develops the conflicts between them, showing the politics and society of your city. As a writer building a setting, that’s incredibly useful for me. It means that my characters have a past to talk about and other people to interact with, enriching my writing.

But the map,  that’s the most useful thing. I don’t normally bother with a map while writing. I might sketch out where named places are compared with each other, for the sake of consistency. But this game has given me districts,  public buildings, surrounding terrain, roads, walls, and ruins. Any time my characters travel from place to place, I can look at that map and get instant, surprising inspiration about what they’ll see.

This sort of game isn’t going to be for everyone, but if you like making up stories and imagining places then it can be a great tool, and with the designers currently letting you name your own price, Ex Novo is a bargain.

Making Stories from the Past

How do we turn the past into stories?

It might sound like a simple question, but the relationship between stories and real events is complex and messy.

The Nature of History

Last week, I received editorial comments on a history article I’m writing. High on the to-do list was making the article into more of a story. As soon as I read that, I knew what they meant, and I knew that they were right. I also knew why I hadn’t done it the first time around.

The past isn’t a neat narrative. It’s a jumple of people, places, and events. At one time these were facts, and what we’re left with is the evidence of what those facts might have been. It’s jumbled and disjointed, but also complex and confusing. Nothing about it is simple. Nothing happens for one reason.

One step removed from the past lies history. This is an attempt to establish facts from the evidence, to put those facts in order, and to squeeze meaning from them. It narrows the focus of what we’re looking at, asserts cause and effect, and prioritises some patterns over others. To do this, it draws boundaries about what’s included in any particular account of history, from the infinite variety of options available.

And then there are stories set in the past, whether told as fiction or non-fiction. These narrow the focus further, to individual people and what happened to them. It turns patterns into narratives, the mechanical procession of events into human experiences. It simplifies some things and exaggerates others so that they come to life for us.

In writing my article, I’d taken the jumble of facts and turned them into history, but I’d missed the next step. I had something that showed patterns in the past, but that didn’t engage well with our humanity.

Framing the Narrative

Whether you’re writing history or a story, there’s also another element to how this works, and that’s framing.

Take the First World War. It’s a messy business. It began and ended at different times in different parts of the world. It was fought in different ways on different fronts, in land and sea and air, was tangled in with events on the home front, and its effects linger with us a century on. Parts of France and Belgium are still inaccessible due to munitions from that war.

Last month, I saw Field Music perform their album Making a New World. Composed for the centenary of the armistice, it’s all about the knock-on effects of that war, from tanks to plastic surgery to sanitary towels. The album tells the story of the First World War not as a self-contained event from 1914 to 1918 but as the epicentre from which vast tremors of change erupted.

My upcoming Commando comic Out of the Woods tells the First World War from a very different perspective. To look at the introduction of chemical weapons, it follows two fictional Canadians from before they signed up through to the aftermath of the Second Battle of Ypres. There are many other ways I could have told that story – from the point of view of the Germans, of civilians, of communities affected for generations by the chemicals. I could have followed a medic, a general, even a gas cannister or a patch of ground. I chose the perspective that suited my purposes, but whichever one I chose, I would have had to cut down and rearrange the history, which itself cuts down and rearranges the facts, in each case forming a different pattern.

Telling Your Story from History

So remember, when telling a story from history, you’re never going to fit in all the facts. You’re already missing some of them and you don’t need them all for your goal. Explore the different ways you could look at the topic, pick a story that will bring the past to life in an engaging way, and let the rest fall by the wayside. You’re not here to tell history. You’re here to tell one story against its background.

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From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Putting Real People Into Unreal Stories

I’ve been making my friends fight each other.

It’s OK though, it’s not as bad as it sounds.

Someone writing outdoors.

I quite often pick the names of characters based on people I know. The names have to come from somewhere, and scanning my social media feeds is a good way to get them quickly. Usually, I mix and match first names and surnames, rather than use one person’s full name.

Recently, I’ve taken a different approach. I put up a message on Facebook asking my friends if any of them would like characters named after them in my Commando comics. I got a lot of positive responses and started using those people in my story pitches. Some became protagonists, others villains, and many got bit parts in the stories I was developing.

This was all fine and theoretical while I was writing pitches, but now Commando have commissioned some of those stories, so I’m writing the scripts. When characters have the names of people I know, it’s hard not to picture them as those people, even if they’re very different in character. In my head, I’m making people I know fight, chase, and argue with each other.

It’s a little weird for me. I imagine it’ll be even more so for my friends when these stories are published.

Sometimes, this can work out really nicely. Years ago, I wrote a flash story featuring a character named Mantaj, after one of my friends. She never saw characters with her name in stories, and so was delighted with it. That made my day.

A lot of people get excited at having characters named after them, and as a writer that gives me an extra bit of fun. Still, it’s never going to stop being weird when I make them fight each other.

Deciding What History To Write

I’ve been writing a lot of historical fiction lately, both on this blog and for Commando Comics. I’ve also been writing articles for places like History.com. That raises an interesting question – how to decide what to write.

For me, there are several factors.

One is what I know about. With a few exceptions, I focus on topics I have plenty of sources for or already know a lot about. This narrows the field and helps avoid misrepresenting history I don’t understand.

Then there’s what’s interesting – both what I’m excited about and what I think other people will be intrigued by. That means finding novelty in the subject matter. For fiction, it also means finding an engaging character.

The audience I’m writing for comes into it. Commando readers mostly want stories about 20th-century warfare, especially World War Two, and they want them action-packed. While I try to make my Commando stories more diverse and varied than they’ve traditionally been, that has to come within the limits of what their readers will go for.

The format matters. What makes an interesting article is very different from what makes a visually exciting comic story, and both are very different from prose fiction, where you get inside a character’s head.

Then there’s the desire for variety. Editors want stories that haven’t been told, and I want to help show diverse stories and perspectives. That means I’ll sometimes pick a piece of history I don’t know quite so well because I think it should be seen.

Picking what history to write about is never as simple as just picking up a book and going with that. It’s a big challenge even before I set my fingers to the keyboard.

And that makes it part of the fun.

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Live Fast and Leave a Beautiful Story

There’s something of futility in a writer’s work.

We’re always trying to capture a moment, real or imagined, to pin it permanently into place.

But nothing lasts. Your favourite blogging site might close down. Your book might go out of print. Google could refuse access to the ideas you’ve set down in a document because they claim it breaches their terms. And in the end, the terms of all our lives are impermanent. The words we set down will turn to dust, like all of us.

That’s not an argument against trying. Taking those words to a new site, saving your notes where Google can’t steal them, laying down a novel that gives joy long after you’re gone, these are all ways of asserting our own existence, of forcing meaning on the universe, of making ourselves just a little bigger and the world just a little better. You can’t escape death, but everything else is up for grabs.

Stories told around a campfire are as valid as those etched in marble a hundred feet high. It doesn’t have to be permanent to matter, because nothing is forever.

Live fast and leave a beautiful story.

Blogger’s Block

Sometimes you just need to start writing. It’s a thing I’m realising more and more, as I try to find ways past writer’s block, or past just not wanting to do my work. You put down words, and they might not be the best words, but at least they get the ideas flowing out of your bain.

Picture by Jose Mª Izquierdo Galiot via Flickr creative commons

Like today, I couldn’t decide what to blog about. Tor.com had a piece on characters who we love because of how damaged they are, so maybe I could reflect on that. Or there was the larp I ran recently, I could talk about its story or my involvement in it. There’s the incident last night where I spent half an hour chasing down a mouse in my study, because this is what happens when you have a cat. Honestly, the possibilities are endless.

And that’s the problem. When the possibilities are endless, how do you work out which one is good? Which one is relevant to my readers, and might grab attention in search engines, and will be satisfying to write? Because when your blog is part personal venting and part marketing tool, all of those things are relevant.

In the end, I’ve taken a copout path by going meta and writing about how tricky it is to write. Instead of deciding what to discuss, I’m discussing how difficult that decision is. Problem solved.

I mean, not really solved. I’ll be back to it next week. This is a regular blog writing problem.

Everyone gets stuck from time to time, staring at the screen and not knowing what to write. And sometimes the answer is just whatever comes into your head.

Trying to Write Amid the Chaos

Writing is a lot about focus, and that’s hard to find right now. In both Europe and America, politics is going batshit crazy. The extent of our damage to the environment becomes clearer every day, as does our failure to tackle it. The economy has become this crazed web of investment instruments utterly detached from reality, which somehow holds people’s fates in its hands. And that’s just the distant, impersonal stuff.

This shit is not good for your mental health. It weighs down on you like the ocean on a submarine’s hull, a constant pressure that can threaten to split you at the seams.

When that’s happening, it’s OK to feel like crap. It’s a natural response. To quote Christin Slater in Pump Up the Volume, feeling fucked up doesn’t mean that you’re fucked up. Feeling fucked up is a perfectly normal response to a fucked-up situation.

It’s important not to beat yourself up if you find this stuff distracting or you struggle to work through it, if your thoughts are constantly off-kilter or scattered to the wind. Mental health is a societal issue, not just a personal one.

But it’s also a good idea not to let it get to you. Find ways to set the unsettling thoughts aside. Go for a walk. Try some mindfulness. Treat yourself to a massive bar of chocolate and gobble that tasty treat down in front of your favourite sitcom. Whatever takes some pressure off your brain. Then take the few precious minutes of happiness you’ve bought yourself and use them to get something done. Write a page of your novel. Cook a cool new meal. Make that phone call you’ve been putting off. Anything that will make you feel more productive, more in control.

That’s how I approach work at times like this. Just banging my head against the words won’t help. I have to take time, take breaks, and then take care to use the energy I’ve saved. Because if I let this completely stop me writing, if I let it trample me down, then I might never get up again.

It’s OK to feel fucked up. But that doesn’t have to mean letting the fucked up win.

Writing About Sex

I’m about to tackle one of the greatest challenges an Englishman can face – writing about sex.

I should be used to this by now as I’ve ghostwritten over a dozen sex scenes in four separate novels. But each time I freeze up at the thought. Right now, there are people out there in the world happily reading things that I squirmed at writing.

Part of this is my personal hangups. I live in a culture that’s terrible at talking about sex and I’ve let that shape me. Even with a partner, I find it difficult to talk about what we’re doing and what we both want. Such mundane activities as finding a condom can feel crushingly awkward.

But the culture that’s shaped me has also shaped the way we write about sex. Directness feels too functional. Metaphors create the accidental comedy of absurdity. Slang brings discomfort because we use these words as obscenities.

Obviously, people have found ways to tackle this. They depend upon the genre and audience, and often tread a delicate line of atmosphere and allusion. But even using those techniques, I clench up inside.

Some people write about sex with skill and panache. But until we’re better at talking about it as a society, we’ll be setting artificial limits on how we write. For an activity that’s so important to many people’s emotional lives, that’s a real shame.

Storytelling About Storytelling

I was recently given the chance to pitch a novel to a mainstream publisher. This forced me to do something I don’t do often – write a pitch.

Novel pitches are weird. Articles often describe them as condensing a story down into a single page. Except that that’s not really true, as I realised when a far more experienced friend gave me feedback on my first draft. Really, pitches are stories in themselves. They don’t tell your story. They let you tell a story about why people should be excited about your story. You do this by setting the emotional tone, showing some of the thrilling high points, and creating a sense of drama.

Pitches are stories about stories, and as such they’re a useful part of the publishing process. They refine and test a writer’s skills on a different scale.

But they are really weird.

Storytelling Books as Stories

“Storytelling, then, is born from our need to order everything outside ourselves.” – John Yorke, Into the Woods

In his excellent book Into the Woods, John Yorke talks about how other cultural forms, from philosophical texts to jazz records, are like stories. They all try to provide order in a seemingly chaotic world, something that humans instinctively do. It’s a way of giving life meaning and asserting some control.

Books about story structure follow this same pattern. They’re attempts to assert order out of the apparent chaos of words and imagination. Yorke’s own book fits the pattern he’s describing.

Good or bad, right or wrong, writing guides help us to assert order over writing. In doing so, they make us feel good, which perhaps explains why so many writing guides, of such variable quality, go soaring off the shelves.

These structures can be useful as well as satisfying if they give us enough feeling of control to grapple with the task of writing. And as Yorke shows, beneath their novelties, many of them follow the same underlying patterns.

At the end of the day, these too are stories – stories about how stories work.