Welcome back to the “Ask the Authors 2022” blog series. This is segment 7 of this Saturday series, which brings you a glimpse of the fantastic writing tips and advice featured in the Ask the Authors 2022 writing reference anthology, and today we introduce contributing author Chris Barili, who shares his thoughts and methods for character development in his own “Character Blueprint” in the anthology, and a Q & A session on setting & world building.
If you missed any of the previous segments, you can find them here:
Segment 1: Introductions for Kaye Lynne Booth & Kevin Killiany/Writing Life Q & A session
Segment 2: Introduction for Bobby Nash/Pre-writing Rituals Q & A session
Segment 3: Introduction for Roberta Eaton Cheadle/Plot & Storyline Q & A session
Segment 4: Introduction for Paul Kane/Character Development Q & A session
Segment 5: Introduction for Mario Acevedo/Action, Pacing & Dialog Q & A session
Segment 6: Introduction for Nancy Oswald & Tone: Voice, Tense, Person & POV Q & A session.
Let’s get started.
Meet Chris Barili
Chris Barili is a speculative fiction and romance author who was also my cohort in the M.F.A. in Creative Writing program at Western. He writes in a wide range of genres, including weird western (Hell’s Marshal series), and science fiction (Shadowblade) under his own name, and romance (Smothered) under the pen name B.T. Clearwater. Chris was a presenter and panel member for both the 2020 WordCrafter Stay in Place Virtual Writing Conference, and the 2021 WordCrafter New Beginnings Virtual Writing Conference.
Besides writing, Chris lifts weights, mountain bikes, practices martial arts and battles with Parkinson’s disease. Writing just may be his salvation. Chris also was a contributor to the original Ask the Authors writing reference project, back in 2018. When asked about a future where writing left him rich and famous, Chris said he would write more.
Now let’s see how our contributing authors responded in the Q & A.
Setting & World Building
What elements do you take into consideration when creating a new world?
Mario Acevedo: Time, place, setting, and the one many writers forget, mood.
Paul Kane: I’ve very rarely created entire worlds, but the ones I do write about – even in crime stories – I always view as just slightly to the left of ours. Alternate worlds that look very much like our own, but are just slightly different. I always make up locations, such as Norchester in The Gemini Factor, or Redmarket, Golden Sands and Green Acres in the PL Kane thrillers, simply because then you own those places and can do what you want with them. It’s much harder with real places like Nottingham or Sherwood, because someone might spot a mistake you made, even if you’ve done tons of research – for example we went on a private tour of Nottingham Castle just to make sure I could accurately describe things in Arrowhead. Nobody’s going to question something you do in a made-up place, that a street shouldn’t be in a certain spot or whatever. I like creating places anyway, though, because they very often feel like characters themselves. Norchester, for instance, is very much a character in The Gemini Factor. It even has two ‘faces’ as I say in the first chapter: the nice side that most people see, and a seedy underbelly that’s not very nice at all, full of drug-pushers and pimps. Or in this case, where a very unique serial killer operates.
Chris Barili: As many as the world requires. If I am sculpting an entirely new world, as I did in Shadow Blade, I consider everything from culture to economy, clothing to foods, and so on. Kevin J Anderson covers this really well in his book on world building, and I’ve been lucky enough to learn under him a bit.
Bobby Nash: Most of my stories take place in the real world so I start with the parts that are familiar. The basis for a town is the same in medieval time, modern day, and on another planet. Start with the familiar and build from there.
Nancy Oswald: Since I write historical fiction (mostly) the world has already been created, so the trick is to get to the heart of the historical period and let some of the actual history dictate parts of the story. For instance, the two fires in Cripple Creek in 1896.
Do places that you’ve traveled to ever end up in your books?
Mario Acevedo: Yes. Los Angeles, Hilton Head Island, Florida, St. Louis, Pacoima, New Mexico, Iraq. Haven’t been to outer space yet.
Paul Kane: It’s the same thing I talked about with characters, I put bits of places I know in stories. Unless they’re actual places like Nottingham, then I’ve made them up of various places I know. Redmarket is very much a mish-mash of Northern towns I know very well, Golden Sands is an amalgamation of various run-down seaside towns I’ve visited, mixed with dollops of other fictional towns like Broadchurch from the famous TV series. When I was writing about Glaive City in my comic book stories based around the gothic superhero Mortis-Man, I was very much thinking about cities from famous comic strips I read as a kid, and still read, which might resonate with readers. To give them a certain flavour of what the tales will be about, you see. So, I guess you could say I visited those places, only I did it through the medium of comic books and graphic novels.
Bobby Nash: Oh, yes. I often take photos while on a drive and have found locations that spark story ideas.
Robbie Cheadle: I do include places I have visited in my books. It is easier to describe a place and give a ring of authenticity if you have visited the setting from your story. I have also included places I have not visited and that required a lot of research of various crucial elements like climate, vegetation, and lifestyles.
Nancy Oswald: Yes. Visited the Sand Creek Massacre site, explored Cripple Creek, and the Jewish Colony is practically in my back yard.
What type of details do you add to help create a mental picture for your readers?
Paul Kane: I think the key is not to overdo it, just a splash here, a splash there. That builds up a picture in a reader’s mind, and very often they supply the rest from places they might know. If I say that Golden Sands has a Fish ‘n’ Chip shop, like I’ve just done in the novelette Corpsing, then I don’t need much of a description because chances are the reader will have been to a seaside chippy themselves at some point in their lives. All you need are broad strokes to paint that picture. Unless you’re doing something very specific with a place, making a certain point. If you’re going to have a character get thrown off a building, you need to describe how high it is in order for a reader to know they probably wouldn’t survive the fall. Things like that.
Chris Barili: Again, whatever the story needs. For example, in Hell’s Marshal, I opened in old wet Tombstone, right near the OK Corral, so a detailed description of the saloon in which the story opened was needed, but since many readers have at least seen a recreation of the corral itself, I was able to use fewer details.
Bobby Nash: I describe people and locations pretty well, I think. I try not to overdo it though. If I say a character walks into a bedroom, I don’t have to describe every item in it. The readers know what a bedroom looks like. They will fill in the details from their own experiences.
Robbie Cheadle: My writing style is descriptive, and I try to incorporate all of the senses into my stories.
Nancy Oswald: In my genre, this is a place where historical photos are invaluable, but I don’t see why historical photos or other photos couldn’t be helpful for fantasy and other types of world-building. They would just need to be tweaked appropriately.
Would you share a brief excerpt from one of your favorite setting descriptions? What is it about this setting description that you like?
I received several examples of setting description from contributing authors which made this section too lengthy, so if you want to see them, you’ll have to buy the book.
How do you choose the right sensory details for your story?
Paul Kane: It depends on what you’re trying to say, you have to pick and choose what’s important again – or what feels right. That’s something you only really develop over time, I think. Don’t feel like you have to throw everything in there: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste or whatever. It might be that less is more again, so you have to decide what it is you’re trying to say about a place or person. I don’t tend to put smell in there much, as I don’t have a sense of smell myself – so I’d only really be guessing. Obviously, if someone was near to a chemical plant, or a sewage works, I could probably hazard a guess that the smell is bad, but having never smelt that before, my description would be loose at best. Ask yourself what it is that’s important about a scene, because that should help you decide what to put in and leave out.
Bobby Nash: It’s all by feeling. Senses are important so I use them where I feel they work best.
Robbie Cheadle: I try to use all the sense in my writing. If the circumstances lend themselves to the incorporation of descriptions relating to smell, taste, or touch I try to bring them in. Descriptions involving sight and hearing work their way into my stories easier than the other sense.
Nancy Oswald: Try to stay character driven and historically accurate.
How do you communicate the rules of the world that you’ve created to your readers?
Paul Kane: The rules of most of my worlds tend to be the same as the one we’re living in, so it’s not that hard in most cases. If you’re writing something like a SF story, you’ll have to give the reader a sense of how that world works obviously, but it should be as the tale goes along – they’ll see through the telling of the story – rather than an info dump. So, in Arcana – which is a parallel universe – I had to show how the magic worked through the course of the story. I do have one bit near the beginning which is a flashback to a school classroom, but that was just to establish we’re not in this universe and that the history of it is different. The vast majority of what I set up in that novel comes through the telling of the story, that way it’s not too obtrusive. It’s not wise to have so many chunks of exposition or explanation too often or the reader will get bored.
Chris Barili: Through character actions words, and interaction with the world. Never by rote exposition.
Bobby Nash: I write the details, flesh things out with dialogue, stuff like that. I’m not a fan of the info dump, so I try to make that happen organically.
Robbie Cheadle: The Boers and the British soldiers in A Ghost and His Gold have their own codes of conduct, religious beliefs, and lifestyles. I bring these elements into my stories through descriptions and also through the use of thoughts and dialogue.
For real settings, do you explore the physical locations in which your stories are set?
Chris Barili: Usually just via the internet.
Bobby Nash: When I can, I do. That isn’t always possible though.
Robbie Cheadle: I explore the physical location when it has been possible for me to do so. Through the Nethergate is set in the English town of Bungay in Suffolk. I have visited Bungay twice as that is where my mother comes from. We have looked around the town and visited the churches, pubs, and the ruins of Bungay Castle.
A Ghost and His Gold is set in South Africa, and I have visited several of the places featured in the book including Irene, Pretoria, Mafeking, and Kimberley. It is easier for me to write about places I have visited, especially as I take lots of photographs.
Nancy Oswald: Yes, whenever possible.
Have you ever had a reader tell you that you missed the mark on a particular detail?
Bobby Nash: Sure. It happens. Sometimes they are right. Sometimes they aren’t. I’m happy that my story moved them enough to take time to let me know what they thought.
What techniques do you use to help readers visualize your world?
Paul Kane: I think it helps to see the world through a character’s eyes. A good device might be to take a ‘fish out of water’ character and throw them into this setting, so that you’re learning about the world as they do, as they go along. If you think about characters like Buck Rogers who gets flung into the future, or Stallone’s cop in Demolition Man, you get the picture. Hopefully then, if you’re giving the reader the right amount of information in the right way, they’re right there with the character seeing what they see.
Bobby Nash: Words and phrases. It’s my job to paint a picture with these words. The reader also helps by bringing his or her imagination into it as well.
Nancy Oswald: Always watch the verbs and passive voice.
Do you plan out your world or build as you go?
Paul Kane: It depends on the kind of world you’re building. If it’s a place that’s going to be a sprawling metropolis that you’re going to need to know inside out to tell your stories, it’s probably a good idea to know which bits are where. Is a new bit next to an old bit, are dangerous bits just a hop, skip and a jump from a nicer bit. I have a place called Graffitiland which is mentioned in my PL Kane books, and was the focus of the novelette of the same name. As you can imagine, this bit of wasteland is so-called because it’s covered in graffiti, so quite rough, but I also wanted it to be within spitting distance of some of the newer parts of the town I was writing about for plot purposes. I didn’t have any maps drawn out or anything, but just needed to jot down that this was the case – especially if I write about it again down the line. But if the whole story revolved around that sprawling city I was talking about, then you might want to start mapping bits out so you don’t contradict yourself.
Chris Barili: I start with an initial world-build, adding to it or changing things as the story progresses.
Bobby Nash: A little of both. When I created Sommersville, the county and town in several of my stories, I went in with a pretty well-established map, but I reveal important places, landmarks, etc. to the reader as needed in service of that particular story.
How do you keep track of the details of your world to avoid inconsistencies in the stories?
Mario Acevedo: Through rewrites and multiple drafts.
Paul Kane: By jotting down notes, essentially, or creating maps. Personally, I wouldn’t spend ages doing all this, because it’s enough to know roughly where things are for the purposes of my writing. But I do know other writers, especially if they’re writing Fantasy say, who spend a long time getting all these details right and recording them. It depends what kind of genre you’re working in.
Bobby Nash: I try to keep good notes.
Robbie Cheadle: I have a spreadsheet for my work-in-progress The Creeping Change as it involves a large number of characters. I write down the names and descriptions of certain supporting characters in my books, so I remember the details correctly.
That’s it for this week’s “Ask the Authors 2022” blog series. Drop by again next Saturday for an introduction to Jeff Bowles, whose essay contribution, , offers up a view on editing & revision, along with a Q & A segment on the same topic.
“Ask the Authors is an up-to-date and broad-based compendium of advice from today’s working writers, to help you with understanding your own writing career. Great information!”
—Kevin J. Anderson, New York Times bestselling author of Spine of the Dragon
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My mother and I are obsessed with visiting historical destinations. On our way to the heart of Cooperstown, NY, we passed a sign for Hyde Hall. Our curiosity got the best of us and we investigated this Hyde Hall. It turned out to be a British-American country house first constructed in 1817 that you could tour. Just what we wanted!
Winding, back country roads took us to a beautiful gatekeeper’s cottage like something from a Regency Romance. Luscious green yards stretched out to overlook a glimmering lake.
We parked, paid our fees, and a tour guide walked us to the stone house. Columns supported a balcony and chimneys reached for the cloudless sky. Stepping inside revealed partly furnished rooms left over from a different time and a differed lifestyle.
One room led into another into another… I could have stayed all day in the library. Actually, I could have moved in!
The deeper into the house you go, you encounter rooms lost to decay. They have yet to be repaired, giving the house an air of being lost. It was at this point in the tour that we learned the house is supposedly haunted and was featured on Ghosthunters in 2013. That was such an added bonus for me, the ghost fanatic. Unfortunately – or fortunately – we didn’t see any ghosts, but some rooms, the nursery in particular, gave off the feeling of being wanted, as if little hands reached for you to play with them.
Touring Hyde Hall reminded me of the Gothic novels I loved to read. Combined with the want of living in a stone mansion this grand inspired me to write SECRETS OF BENNETT HALL. The characters are all inventions of mine, but I pictured Hyde Hall as I wrote about Bennett Hall. The lake of Bennett Hall is much further away – a bit of forest serrates it from the fictional mansion – whereas Glimmerglass Lake is close enough to Bennett Hall that you can see it from the massive windows.
If only I could be like Adelaide and move into Hyde Hall to be a governess…but without the secrets and lies!
Jordan Elizabeth is a young adult fantasy author. If you’re looking for her in the evenings, most likely you will find her with a Gothic novel in hand. You can connect with Jordan via her website, JordanElizabethBooks.com.
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