It was so hot that summer, I would have preferred vomiting barbed wire to walking outside.
The air was muggy and thick with humidity so high that a permanent haze settled in like a fog. I didn’t see my thermostat go below 80 degrees for far too long, even with air conditioning.
Living in a two-story red brick house in southern Georgia, I had a lot of great story ideas stuck in my head. I was brimming to the point it was paralyzing. There were so many ideas! I started on one tangent, just to start to explore another.
The scene was bitter cold, with snow and frosty windowpanes. Or …. was it supposed to be hot and arid? Wasn’t my character chasing a dragon? Yes, but they got lost on a trail and found a flow. Wait, that pink flower is poisonous. Or was it the one that turned into an umbrella when touched? Oh, this part of the world is swamp… or is it mountains? Definitely the mountains, the ones I put on the east coast… or was it the west coast?
Get the idea?
Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the heat addling my brain. It was an overabundance of ideas. The problem started when I realized that I kept trying to write the story, but my make-believe world got in the way. I’d sit at my keyboard and try to figure out where in my world I was, or my characters were, only to realize I was lost in a place of my own making.
It happens far more often than I care to admit.
Have you found yourself so bogged down in your own jungle that you didn’t know how to hack your way out?
I offer four suggestions to swim your way out of this murky mess. (Trust me: I get it. This doesn’t apply to everyone. Some people can’t write and be methodical about it at the same time. It’s all right. This can be a very unorganized way of being organized, and I’ll prove it.)
1. Draw a map
If you’re as visual as me, you need to see it to believe it. Or, at the very least, remember it.
I took a piece of scrap paper and scribbled an ugly, irregular shape in the middle. Then I started throwing features on it. Mountains. Farmlands. Caves. No, not that corner. This corner. Orchards? No. Islands? Sure. I rearranged several times and went through many drafts until I finally settled on one that felt right. (By the way, that’s how I knew it was the one. It felt right.)
Then I put it up on the wall in my office, right next to my bay window. I thought it looked great. Fortunately, my husband didn’t go in that room much.
It still undergoes multiple revisions as the story rolls on.
2. Paint a freaking picture
After I felt good about the map, I got a large artists notebook, the kind with thick paper. Then I scoured the internet to find images that expressed what was in my head. I printed them, divided the notebook into sections of my world, and pasted them. Once I finished that, I went around with a pencil and wrote every detail I could imagine. I scratched out some parts of the pictures with a sharpie and drew out what I was thinking next to it.
To be honest, it’s a disaster.
No one but myself could ever hope to interpret what those pages say, or represent. That’s all right. They don’t need to know yet. This is just a baby step to help you translate your gibberish in to full-blown English. (Or German, Spanish, whatever.)
That doesn’t mean you have to find and print pictures to express what you want like I did. Draw a picture of what you see in your mind, even if it’s just the shape. Finger paint it. Doodle, if you have too. Just get it down. You’ll be surprised what inspiration you may draw from it later, and how helpful it will be to see it.
3. Create character outlines
There is a separate notebook on my desk (ok, my kitchen counter. I never sit at a desk to write) designated for this. It’s entirely unorganized, but having it in one space makes it feel organized.
When I have a moment of genius strike me, or several, I open the pages and let the words flow out of my pen. Sometimes it looks like chicken scratch. Most of the time it bounces around, from plot, to character, to description, to landscape, and back to character. Again, that doesn’t matter yet.
When you feel like you have a substantial enough amount to go off of, trying making a character outline. Maybe scrapbook a page. Do they have shoulder length brown hair? Does it stick straight out of their head in purple spikes? Are they nine feet tall? Put the details in different categories if you have too. For example:
Hair Color: Purple
Eye color: Yellow
What makes her grumpy: The smell of worms when it rains, puppies
What makes her happy: Watching a battle take place.
Etc, etc, ad nauseum…
I have a few key character outlines in my scrapbook, so when I’m writing I can refer back to decisions I’ve already made on details that may not be important to the plot line, like eye color. Freckles. Height. That kind of thing. Then I know my story is consistent.
Also, make sure you write in pencil. This is key.
As a writer, things change. Plots are constantly shifting, characters taking us by surprise. Just go with it, and write in pencil.
That leads into my next point.
4. Take yourself there
Become friends with your characters. Get really comfortable in your world. Love to go there. Think about it as you fall asleep, or walk around the block, or wait for your tea to boil. Put things that you love about life into your world. If you love it, the reader will know.
The more familiar it is to you, the more you’ll remember those pesky details. Write flash fiction stories about your world that don’t necessarily relate directly to your plot. It’s a way to sharpen your skill as a writer, and you’ll acclimatize yourself to the environment there.
Is your world mountainous? Then go climb an actual mountain. Get a feel for the rocks. Does your world have a lot of beaches? Try and find a patch of sand to run your fingers through, even if you have to nip over to the neighbors backyard and play in their kids sandbox. How does it feel? Can you put that into your story? Can you capture that moment in your fantasy world as well?
In conclusion, creating your own fantasy world doesn’t have to be a bog. Don’t get mired in details, and don’t be afraid to create a loose structure until you get to know your world really well. Try it. If it doesn’t work, if it stifles your creativity, then at least you tried.
What other ways do you have to keep yourself from getting overwhelmed at creating your own worlds? Have you found other ways to combat this problem?
About the Author:
Katie Cross is a writer, runner, weight-lifter, foodie and a girl in love with her husband and dog. Visit her at kcrosswriting.com to learn more about her upcoming book, Miss Mabel’s School for Girls.