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Creating the Fictional Universe – Part 1: Establishing the Setting

It’s a big world out there. It looks even bigger when you have to learn everything there is to know about it. It can be fairly intimidating to open an encyclopedia and try and memorize everything from countries and politics to continents and oceans. Thankfully Google makes that task a little easier these days, but start adding planets, stars and galaxies to that lineup and you might as well just enroll in an undergraduate program at your local university.

So if it’s that much work to learn about the real world, how do authors keep up with their own fictional universes and talk about them like they’ve been studying the details for half a century? The key is creating a solid base for a fictional universe that pulls ideas from our non-fictional world and has room for plenty of expansion.

Over the next several weeks, I will be posting a special blog series that breaks down the structure behind a fictional universe. Although you can technically make up anything you want in a work of fiction, it gives much more value to the readers when they can place themselves in the story and understand what is going on around the characters. My preferred word for this type of information is “backstory”. Whether it has to do with your fictional universe’s history, geography, astronomy, or even social structures and politics, fans of your work are certain to ask “why” and attempt to discover the past, present, and future of your characters and the world around them. As the ultimate creator behind that universe, it’s your job to provide them with that information when they ask for it. If it doesn’t exist yet, make it up on the spot and give it to them in a way that makes perfect sense in your world. That’s the greatest part about fiction writing- the truth is synonymous to your own imagination. Who says pigs can’t fly? They can if you want them to!

This first step to creating a solid fictional universe is to determine the setting. Are your stories taking place in the past or distant future? Can your characters experience the real world (Earth) in some way, or are they off in a completely different realm? Build a base of operations in that setting to live and breathe with your potential characters- figuratively- and see the universe you’re creating from their point of view. Would the world make sense to your characters the way you’re planning it? If it does, it will likely make sense to your readers as well. For example, in my latest series, The Adventures of Nick and O-Zone, I opted for a blend of fact and fiction to give my characters the opportunity to have real world experiences on Earth, as well as play in a fictional part of the universe- one foot in, one foot out. Establishing a solid base setting will not only establish your genre, but also give you a great starting point from which you can infinitely expand.

In Part 2, we’ll touch on the subject of geography and mapping.

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The Power of Imagination

We can all admit that throughout our childhood we consistently surrendered to daydreaming- that time and space where nothing else seemed to matter but what was going on in our imagination. Our parents and teachers would tell us to “come back down to earth”, where we would have to resume a boring existence solving math problems and eating our veggies. It was our daily- scratch that- hourly dose of pure fiction that was an all-inclusive vacation to our favorite laboratory, beach, or distant star system.

Then came our teenage years, a point in our lives when we were introduced to harsh adult realities such as time and money. Where did those time machines and treasure chests full of gold run off to? A sad decade indeed. My first taste of adult reality came on my sixteenth birthday when I received an electric tooth brush from my parents. It was a thoughtful gift, but it wasn’t like the toys and games I was used to receiving. There wasn’t a Ferrari in the driveway either, and that’s when I was also told it was time to let go fiction and start facing fact. I almost let it go completely, but something stirred inside me and told me it wasn’t the end of fiction.

That’s when I picked up my trusty pen and paper- you caught me, it was a keyboard- and started putting my leftover fragments of imagination into powerful words on a page. I developed my own universe where humans co-existed with robots and aliens and travel to distant galaxies could be accomplished in seconds instead of light years. This fictional universe was not just a place I used to develop my writing skills, but also a place where my inner child could be free to play and create outside the confines of the real world.

As a fiction writer, that inner child is the catalyst that causes your creativity to explode and catapult you to another universe where all things that you write about do exist- just like daydreaming back in the day. Tolkien, Rowling, and Jacques- all exceptional authors who would probably admit that they never lost touch with that inner child while writing their amazing works. Sadly, many people chose to let go of their inner child and sunder the connection to the fictional universes they’ve created. Fortunately, that connection is never fully severed, and those universes can be revisited when the inner child finally returns.

Power is in the imagination, and that’s what we need to remind the children that will be building our future on this planet- they need to know that it’s okay to dream and embrace fiction. After all, everything has to be fiction before it becomes fact. Reading my latest children’s fiction novel, The Adventures of Nick and O-Zone: Protectors of the Universe, some would tell me that the idea of a twelve-year-old boy traveling across the universe is entertaining but unrealistic. A thousand years ago, they would have said the same thing about a man walking on the moon.