SPS-305: How to Build a Believable World – with Angeline Trevena

What goes on behind the scenes of a book’s setting is often as important as what readers eventually experience. Angeline Trevena is an author who also specializes in teaching authors how to build and destroy worlds, create rules around magic systems, and invent history so that our books are compelling, consistent, and accurate.

Show Notes

  • The importance of rules in made up worlds
  • How world building and character building are similar
  • Thoughts on issues that need to be addressed when world-building
  • On maps and their importance in world-building and supporting consistency
  • Why having a world-building bible matters
  • World-building topics to be considered, including educational and agricultural systems
  • Finding the balance between understanding the world you’ve created and being a slave to it

Resources mentioned in this episode:

PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page

WORKSHEET: Angeline is offering SPS listeners a free worksheet for creating a world’s timeline

MERCH: Are you a ligneous beetle or a yawning hippopotamus? Get your SPF hoodies and t-shirts in the brand new SPF Store.


SPS-305: How to Build a Believable World - with Angeline Trevena
Speaker 1: On this edition of The Self-Publishing Show.

Angeline Trevena: You end up with quite a thin character that doesn't quite fit, doesn't quite feel fully rounded, and it's quite obvious that you put them in just to serve the plot. It's exactly the same as world building. World building really needs to be treated in exactly the same way as a character.

Speaker 1: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers, no more barriers, no one standing between you and your readers. Do you want to make a living from your writing?

Join indie bestseller, Mark Dawson, and first-time author, James Blatch, as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success. This is The Self-Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.

James Blatch: Hello and welcome. It is The Self-Publishing show with me, James Blatch.

Mark Dawson: And me in the same shirt as last week, Mark Dawson. Hello.

James Blatch: People may not have noticed. I mean, people listen, so they don't know stuff.

Mark Dawson: That's true, very true. Although, we have to be honest about this. Let's not try and mislead people. We haven't even stopped recording between the two episodes yet. So that's how has how seamless these two episodes have been.

James Blatch: It's a matter of trust, isn't it? We don't want to have trust issues.

Mark Dawson: No, quite.

James Blatch: We still haven't been to Vegas, but so this is now two weeks ago, I think from the time this is-

Mark Dawson: Who knows as this gets recorded, we may find in the future that we all tested positive for COVID tomorrow when we have our pre-flight tests and we can't go. So we might be talking about Vegas and actually we are staying in the UK. It's entirely possible. I think it's unlikely, but I feel fairly fever well.

James Blatch: I've got a test in about an hour and a half.

Mark Dawson: Yeah.

James Blatch: So do I, but we'll see how that goes. It's terrifying, this whole thing. When you actually come close to flying, you realise all the bureaucracy you go through and the worry and stress of it all.

Mark Dawson: It has been. I've not enjoyed it, I have to say. It's so complicated. The things like the different tests and antigen tests, PCR tests. Which one do we need? We've got to be three days before your flight. So when is the last time you can take it? When's the earliest you can take it?

Mark Dawson: For those on YouTube, this arrived in the post to me this week, recommended by Tom Ashford. So if that goes wrong, Tom's sacked. Because I was just a bit paranoid that it wasn't going to come in time, I did book myself in for kind of someone to shove something up my nose tomorrow at 9:00 o'clock. So I've got two, I'll have two tests done. Hopefully both negative, but we will see.

James Blatch: I've got three tests booked now.

Mark Dawson: Well, the life I lead here, I don't really see anybody. Although of course, both children are at school. So I suppose in that case I see about 100 people, but yeah, we'll have to see. Feel okay. Certainly asymptomatic if we have got it, but you know.

James Blatch: I did do a home lateral flow last night just to give me some sort of sense of security and that was negative. COVID.

Mark Dawson: Oh my God.

James Blatch: Oh dear.

Mark Dawson: That's it.

James Blatch: Right. Okay. Look, enough of our stuff, bearing in mind, this is going out after we may or may not have got back.

Mark Dawson: Yeah.

James Blatch: We are talking today about world building, which I think is something that applies to anybody who's writing more than one book set in the same universe. It doesn't have to be epic fantasy or science fiction, or urban fantasy, whatever. World building is getting consistency and making sure that you've created something that's not going to jar with your audience.

Now I think if you're writing fantasy, it does become a more complicated thing. That's where this particular interview with Angeline Trevena I think is going to be very useful. So without further ado, let's talk to Angeline.

Angeline Trevena, have I said it?

Angeline Trevena: Trevena.

James Blatch: Trevena. There you go. I'm pleased I checked. Welcome to The Self-publishing Show. Lovely to have you here. You've got a little background there.

Angeline Trevena: I have, it hides the mess that's beyond.

James Blatch: That's good. Okay. Well, I'm sure we're going to learn more about what's scrawled on there. If you're watching on YouTube, you know what we're talking about. But, Angeline, we are going to talk about world building, particularly I think for fantasy, science fiction, very important part of it.

And particularly people writing in series and serials, having a grasp of that and the work that goes into it in some of these. Perhaps we'll talk about some of the hidden pitfalls of not getting it right as well.

Why don't we start with a bit about you?

Angeline Trevena: I am a British indie author. I mostly write dystopian and post apocalyptic fiction, which edges into urban fantasy. I like mixing up futuristic tech with magic. So that's my obsession.

I'm also a podcaster. I'm an events' manager. I run workshops and I'm a mom to two little boys. So I'm super crazy busy.

James Blatch: Excellent. I know that feeling. It's just one of those things in this modern world. There's a lot of us who end up doing lots of different things, but that's great. So hat's off for you for doing everything. Being a mother is like an entire career and job in its own right. And then everything else has to get booted on top of that.

Angeline Trevena: Literally.

James Blatch: How old are the boys?

Angeline Trevena: Five and nine.

James Blatch: Wow. That is a busy time.

Angeline Trevena: Yeah.

James Blatch: That is a busy time. I remember that bit. Okay. Right. We'll talk about publishing more than motherhood probably today. Let's talk about your books a little bit, actually. Dystopian and you're British, are your books set in a dystopian version of Britain? Some might say it's here already.

Or are they set in a world we wouldn't recognise from planet Earth?

Angeline Trevena: I mostly write in second world because I love fantasy. So I love creating entire worlds. I do have one book, which is Poster Park, which it is set in a future post-apocalyptic Britain. But the towns that they visit are completely made up because you know that thing where you set a story in a real live place, and then everyone goes, "Oh no, you got that wrong."

James Blatch: Yeah.

Angeline Trevena: Oh, that doesn't exist. That's not right. But part of the reason I love writing fantasy is because I don't like doing all the minute research. I like just making it up. So mostly I write in second worlds.

James Blatch: Second world is a term for not Earth, basically another?

Angeline Trevena: Yes.

James Blatch: Yeah. Sort of made up world.

Angeline Trevena: Not a real place that already exists.

James Blatch: Okay. Well you say the minute research, that's a chore for you. But I imagine not chore's perhaps not the right word, but something you do have to pay attention to, is getting the world right and being consistent.

I'm guessing that science fiction and fantasy authors are equally likely to pick up on something that's inconsistent in the universe you created, right?

Angeline Trevena: Yeah. When you are creating your own universe, of course you're in control of the rules.

James Blatch: You're God.

Angeline Trevena: Yeah, exactly. That's part of the reason that I absolutely love doing it. Yes, you absolutely are God. So you create the rules, you decide what can and can't happen. But what's really important, I mean, you can go crazy. You can go crazy when you're creating your own world. Feel free to do that because it usually turns out pretty awesome.

But the thing that you've really got to watch is that everything makes sense in your world. So if you put a crazy weird thing in, you've got to explain why it happens. You've got to know society, how that became the norm in society, and why it makes sense in your world.

There is research to do I. I do a lot of research on poisons. I'm sure they're going to come for me pretty soon, the amount of research I do. I did a lot of research on limpets for one of my books. So I tend to do really weird, random little bits of research. But yeah, second world, I have so much freedom. And like you say, yeah, I get to be God, and I like that.

James Blatch: So you say you need to know why things happen. Or you need to have some idea. And you're not just talking about what's on the page here.

You're talking about you understanding stuff that doesn't even make it onto the page.

Angeline Trevena: Yeah. But it's no different that when you create a character, your character has backstory and you know that backstory. We know what has happened to this character in the past, what traumas, what influences they've had to make them who they are. Why they've got particular anxieties, why they've got particular neurosis, why they believe certain things, it's all in their backstory, which doesn't necessarily all end up in the story.

World building is exactly the same. Your world has a backstory. So the reason your world has certain cultural things, certain norms, certain values, certain things that happen is because of your world's backstory. So just as we create characters and we understand their whole backstory, that's how you want to do your world building, even if it doesn't all end up in the book.

James Blatch: What happens when you've created something, it's published, and it's out there. Then for the convenience of a story, you sort of feel that you wish you hadn't had that restriction on it. Have you had a situation like that? I don't know, to do with gravity or something where you just think, oh God, of course he can't do that, can he? Because I've said this is how it works.

Do you have some freedom to play with things?

Angeline Trevena: I think you do, because if you're writing a sequel, you can have a new scientific discovery happen. You could have a new magic spell, or ancient magic knowledge could be uncovered. If it's like something in society, so some sort of restriction that's created by people, like a law or a government structure, then you can have an election and you have a new government come in. Or you can even have a revolution.

So yeah, absolutely. There's freedom to be able to change the rules as you go along. But again, you need to be making sure that it makes sense. You can't suddenly have a planet change its force of gravity and for no reason other than you wanted to. That's the sort of thing readers will pick up on and go, hold on. Just like if you change a character's name by accident.

James Blatch: Yeah. And you want there to be some rules and a framework to operate in because people like that.

If it's gets too convenient that things change, I think readers would sense that, wouldn't they?

Angeline Trevena: Yeah. Because you end up with that God in the machine moment where, oh, that was convenient. Oh, I need this to happen, so I'll change this completely so that it can happen. Because again, it's like, you can create characters just for a certain plot point. Sometimes people do that and you end up with quite a thin character that doesn't quite fit, doesn't quite feel fully rounded. And it's quite obvious that you put them in just to serve the plot.

Again, it's exactly the same as world building. World building really needs to be treated in exactly the same way as a character, which not a lot of people always realise that. Even if they're doing that, they don't realise that that's what they're doing. So it's basically creating a character, but a world.

James Blatch: That's a really good way of doing it. They do talk about landscapes being a character in a book. Particularly, just a sort of non fantasy book, or like a regional detective in a certain part of the world. In the west country, for instance, where the countryside and the geography become a character and a part of the book.

Angeline Trevena: Yeah, absolutely.

James Blatch: It's the same way of thinking about it. A really good way of thinking about it. Yeah.

So you've written books, Angeline, on this subject.

Angeline Trevena: Yes. I have four world building books out at the moment. So I started off with 30 Days of World Building, which is 30 world building prompts. It takes you from absolute starting point through to creating an entire world in 30 prompts. So obviously if you do one per day, then within a month, you've got an entire world built.

Then I went on to my second one. How to Destroy the World is about writing dystopia and post-apocalyptic worlds. Of course, they're my two favourite genres. But interestingly enough, I planned that book at the end of 2019. I wrote it at the beginning of 2020.

James Blatch: Right.

Angeline Trevena: I published it in March 2020. I was like, oh my goodness, the world's blowing up.

James Blatch: Yeah. And that must have been a very-

Angeline Trevena: Yeah, I've just written this book. So I released it a little bit apologetically. I didn't make a big fanfare of it. But actually it's been really popular and people really like it.

I've also got From Sanctity to Sorcery, which is building magic systems and belief systems. So religions or other kinds of belief systems. And my latest one is How to Create History, which is about creating history, myths, and monsters for your world and tying those all together.

James Blatch: We should we talk about the first one then, the base of the 30 prompts you've written into? It's a nice, convenient way of doing it.

What sort of things are we talking about? For somebody at the beginning of perhaps of their writing career, looking for science fiction, what should they be thinking about?

Angeline Trevena: The very first prompt in the book is to work out the genre that you are going to be writing, which may seem slightly unrelated. But the genre and the sub genre that you want to write can have a big bearing on the kind of world you are going to create. So for example, if you want to write urban fantasy, you're probably only going to be building one city.

You might build more than that, but largely you're probably only going to be building one city. As opposed to, if you are writing a space opera, you've got a lot of work because you've got a whole load of different planets. They're all going to have different life forms, different kind of terrains. So the genre that you write really tells you what kind of world you're going to create a lot.

So that's the first prompt. That's always the first place that somebody should start. And then we go onto the most fun, which is map drawing. I love drawing maps.

James Blatch: We'll talk about maps in a second there. Genre is so important in almost every aspect of marketing as well. We say that if you haven't nailed a genre, you're writing in - even if it is not a genre, it's literary fiction or something - you just need to know right from the beginning. It just helps everything.

Things become very difficult for you, and that disconnect between reader expectation and what you've delivered, is a horrible thing and it's where you get bad reviews. So what a great start for anything, but particularly for people looking to actually market and sell their books in the future as well, getting that right.

James Blatch: Interesting that that's the first thing you come up with as well in writing. Okay. So maps. Maps are your thing, are they?

Angeline Trevena: Oh, I love maps.

James Blatch: Well, I think, as kids, I think we all probably drew maps at some point, didn't we? Lot of Famous Five and stuff like that. So you draw this map and create this one. That's probably the world building that children start with at some point.

Angeline Trevena: Yeah.

James Blatch: Start with a map and there's a mountain here and it probably sparked by the books we read then. So it's an important part of world building.

Angeline Trevena: I think it really is a very important part of world building because it's very easy to get lost in your world when you're writing your book. Especially if you're writing over an entire series, you might want your characters to travel from point A to point B. And if you get that modelled, if at one point, point B is a small coastal town, and then suddenly it's in the mountains, it's one of those things your readers are going to notice that. And they're going to pull you up on it in the reviews. So it just stops you getting lost in your world.

But I know that a lot of writers in particular, when they think about drawing a map, they kind of freak out and go, "I'm no good at drawing." And I totally get that. I totally understand. But honestly, when you're writing, your map is just for you. It doesn't have to be beautiful and it doesn't have to be stunning at all.

It can be like a childlike scrawl on the back of an envelope, as long as you know where everywhere is, and how it connects, and things like the distances between places. You need to have a rough idea of how long it takes to travel between places, and what kind of terrain your characters are travelling over, so that they can be prepared for the journey.

James Blatch: Reminds me a bit of the Game of Thrones TV adaptation, where in the first few series, it was a massive part of the series, was how long it took to get from north to south in the land. By the end of it, they'd forgotten that, and suddenly people just seemed to appear down in King's Landing the day after they said it was a good idea to go there, which was annoying to watch it as fans.

I know they had pressure to suddenly get the series done, but that is annoying.

So you want to avoid that type of thing.

Angeline Trevena: Absolutely. It is just one of those inconsistencies that makes your world seem less believable. And it's the sort of inconsistencies that will throw your readers out of your world, which is the last thing you want.

James Blatch: Yeah. And for people building galaxies, I mean, it's a map. You're going to have to have maps within maps, aren't you?

Angeline Trevena: Maps and maps and maps. This is why I don't write space opera.

James Blatch: Yeah. Although I do notice in Star Wars type things that when they go to another planet, there is basically one place they go to on the planet. It's like a city. Occasionally, there's a bit of travelling within the planet, but you go to this planet for that.

You go to Mos Eisley, or Hoth, or whatever, but in reality, you'd land on a planet the size of Earth, wouldn't you? And you'd be 20,000 miles away from where you need to be in lots of other cities. But it doesn't work like that in science fiction. You just go there for this one thing.

Angeline Trevena: Yeah, but we'll forgive them. It's a lot of time.

James Blatch: Yeah. Okay. So map building, which sounds really fun. Awesome fun actually. I mean, interesting. I write in contemporary, well, not contemporary, 1960s Earth, so real world, but I refer to maps all the time. In fact, I refer, not just because my characters. How far Oxford is away? Is that something he would drive in a day? Or does he have to fly or whatever?

So I look at that, but I also go back and find contemporary 60s maps to make sure the road I'm talking about was there in the 1960s. So it's the same sort of thing in a way.

It's making sure it is based on something that's consistent.

Angeline Trevena: Yeah, absolutely. Consistency is absolute key, as it is in any be part of writing really. And that's why one of the things I really suggest is, especially if you're writing a series, to have a series Bible, or a world building Bible. That's why my world building books, the paperback version is a workbook. So it has loads of space for people to write answers to all of the prompts.

What you have at the end of the 30 days, when you've created your whole world, you have a world building Bible that you can have next to you as you're writing your story. So you can keep flipping through and making sure you're checking all your details and getting all of them right. I've made that horrible mistake before where, I think I was on book three of a series that I hadn't written a world building Bible, which was very silly.

I had to literally pick up book one and look through it to find the name of some random guy's wife, because I didn't have a clue. So it's all those things. It doesn't matter what genre you are writing, especially if you're writing a series of books, make sure you have a series Bible. So can write all these things down because you will forget. I do all the time.

James Blatch: How should people organise the Bible? Is there a particular way you recommend? Because I don't know how I would start it. Alphabetical or is it like a glossary? Or is it closer to the actual Bible, kind of series of stories?

Angeline Trevena: I say, do whatever works for you because some people really like to work digitally and there are a lot of digital programmes. There are a lot of apps that you can use to organise notes in. A lot of people, for example, will use Scrivener and be able to move their notes around.

I'm a tactile girl. I like notebooks and pens. So each of my serious Bibles are literally a notebook. And what I tend to do is I split the book in half. So the front half of the book is all my characters. So I just write their names at the top of a page, and I just have a page for each character.

And then the second half is my world building, like each institution or any information, like a magic system, things like that. They all happen in the back of the notebook. That's when I'm being organised, which doesn't always happen.

James Blatch: It sounds like good advice though.

Angeline Trevena: I think it's really good advice.

James Blatch: Nice though it would be to go through the next 28 tips, I don't suppose we can do all of them. But I'm keen to explore a few more the sort of key ones that we can talk about in a bit more detail. So do you want to pick a few more out for us?

Angeline Trevena: Okay, yeah. So another thing that I quite enjoy is education. So you need to think about the structure of education and how it fits into your world. Now the fun thing about world building is it's a bit of a rabbit hole to fall down. Because as soon as you create one thing, you realise how much it ties into other things.

For example, education, you've got to think about the school year. Now here in the UK, our school year is still based on the farming year. The reason we have six weeks holiday in the summer is so that the farming children can help with the harvest. And it is based around Christianity as well. So we have two weeks off at Christmas. We have two weeks off at Easter.

But if you're writing a secondary world that doesn't have Christianity in it, then where are you putting your holidays for school? And why are you putting them there? Suddenly that fits into maybe the religion in your world. It fits into the culture in your world. It also fits into the sort of jobs that people do.

And you've also got to think about what age people go to school. And more importantly, what age they leave school, and what happens when they leave school? And again, that would depend on whether it's an agricultural setting that you're creating.

Or maybe boys go off to become sailors at like 14 years old. And girls are allowed to stay at school until they're 16. Maybe girls aren't allowed to go to school at all. Maybe poor people can't access school. Maybe there are different kinds of schools. So as you can see, it's like this complete rabbit hole that every single aspect of world building ties into everything else.

The way I always talk about it is if you imagine a pool and you drop a pebble in. So every time you create something in your world, it's like dropping a pebble into this still water and it creates ripples. And then you drop another one in because you create something else. And then you drop another one in. All those ripples are rippling against each other and they all affect each other.

That's the analogy I always use for world building. But you see how just one aspect ties into so many other things and it is a complete rabbit hole, but I love it. I get very excited over world building.

James Blatch: I can tell and now that's a good thing. And the inspiration for some of these ideas. And when you talk about do girls go to school for instance? Almost everything you suggested, there's a possibility you need to decide about, is something that's unfortunately, either happening today somewhere in the world, or has happened in history.

So you only have to look back.

I guess you need to make decisions about, this might be another one of your points, the level of industrialization, of where your civilization is.

Angeline Trevena: Absolutely. Because of course you might be writing mediaeval fantasy, or you might be writing cyber punk. And so they are incredibly different. The technology that's available, the medical understanding. The amount of people who are able to read and write in those worlds are going to be totally different.

I think that's one of the reasons I enjoy writing dystopian and post-apocalyptic because I get to write about the change. Because post-apocalyptic, you can just wipe out technology. Or you can wipe out this, you can wipe out that. Dystopian world, you can destroy knowledge, or you can hoard knowledge, or you can take it away from people. And I love writing about that change.

I love seeing the contrast between what was and what is, or what could be. So again, it comes back to genre. Again, it's another aspect where you need to understand your genre. You need to understand the tropes and the norms of your genre. And that's how you really kick off your world building and know what you need to world build.

James Blatch: Can you just tell me the difference between post-apocalyptic and dystopian?

Angeline Trevena: Post-apocalyptic is after an event has happened, a big world changing event. So it might be a meteor striking the earth. It might be a zombie apocalypse. So it's a big change that has affected the entire world and changed everything.

Whereas dystopian is just a horrible world. It's literally just a horrible world to live in. So there may not have been some big catastrophic event that created a dystopian world. You can gradually come into a dystopian world. It can slowly change. Like you said, at the top of the interview, we may be living in one now.

James Blatch: Yeah. Feels like it sometimes. Okay. So you've got your basic building blocks we've talked about here. I'm sure your book goes into more detail about stuff. I'm thinking also some of the other basics that you need to get right is biology, particularly with science fiction.

It's another thing that becomes quite convenient in instal. One of those things that people land on plants can breathe the air easy. But in reality, there's not another planet in our solar system that humans can breathe in, breathe on.

Angeline Trevena: Yeah.

James Blatch: So that's something.

Angeline Trevena: Yeah, absolutely. That's one of the things that I've ruined myself with the whole being such a world building nerd. Because whenever I watch something or read something, I'm like, but that wouldn't be right.

One of the ones that particularly annoys me in places, I love it though, is James Cameron's Avatar. I love that movie. And it does what it sets out do, but there are certain evolutionary things that I'm like, but why would it do that? The biggest problem I have is the whole thing that the Na'vi can connect and control the minds of the creatures. That's a bad thing to be, that you can just be taken over. You can be mind controlled just like that. Why would all the animals evolve like that?

But I understand that it's all about connectedness and that's one of the themes of it. So yeah, it does what it sets out to do, but every time it just kind of niggles me. And it is just little things like that, it goes back again to making sure that things make sense in your world, and make sense to the history of the world, and the evolution of the world.

If you're creating non-human characters, then you've got to think about that. If you have a planet with much, much stronger gravity than it has on Earth, you need to know what's going to happen to humans when they go on that planet. And you need to think about how the animals and the creatures there would evolve differently? And what effect it would have on like the plants that are there?

It gets very in depth. And like I say, I don't write space opera or anything like that, or hard sci-fi. I have huge respect for people who do, because the amount of research they have to do is just insane.

James Blatch: Yeah. Those big universes. Avatar's a good example actually, where they do take account of the fact that they can't breathe the air in there.

Angeline Trevena: They do, but they don't take account of a changing gravity.

James Blatch: Right.

Angeline Trevena: Because all of the creatures there are much bigger than them.

James Blatch: Right.

Angeline Trevena: So to me that makes think of-

James Blatch: Stronger gravity. Yeah.

Angeline Trevena: And gravity, but it doesn't affect them in any way.

James Blatch: This brings me onto some area I want to talk about before we finish, which is whether the world building, and being a slave to the consistency, can get in the way of a story? And keeping that balance. I'm reminded of James Cameron, again, who gets asked frequently, whenever he meets fans and elevators, "Couldn't Jack have got onto that bit of wood?"

In the end, he said, I thought it was a really brilliant answer. He said, "The reason Jack couldn't have got on to that square of wood at the end of Titanic is because in the script it said he drowned."

Angeline Trevena: Yeah.

James Blatch: And that's what the fans need to understand, is that's what was happening there. And it doesn't really a matter about what's shaped the size of the wood is. But it does matter a little bit, doesn't it? Because what you don't want is the audience to be a bit distracted thinking, oh, he could have got onto that.

Perhaps they'd done it a bit better where she was just cling onto something just about.

There's that balance there, isn't it? Between just understanding you are telling a story and not being a slave to the world that will distract the audience from that.

Angeline Trevena: Definitely. It is very much about finding the balance. You are likely to almost certain to do a heck for lot more world building than actually makes it into the book. I'm actually a discovery writer. I'm a true, pure discovery writer. I've started writing books before with nothing more than the main character's name. But what I do have is the world building.

My world building happens before I start writing my book. I will start writing my book with no idea what I'm writing at all, but I will have done the world building. So when I'm writing, I'll sometimes write myself into a corner and go, okay, I can't let this plot point happen because the world won't let me. So I can change that. I can rewrite the world building and I can change it to serve the plot.

Obviously then I have to backwards engineer it. So backwards engineering is when you go, well, this is the case in my world. I need to find out how it got to this point, why it happened? So when you are world building forwards in time, you're asking yourself, what if? So what if this happened? What would the result of this be?

When you're backwards engineering, you're asking yourself why? So this is the case in my world. Why has that happened? Why has society come to this point that it is like this? So when you are writing, yeah, you're God, you can change things. But make sure you're doing the work to make it make sense. So that you are not just putting things in just to serve the plot. So that everyone questions it and goes, well, why is it like that? Or come up with a really clever answer.

James Blatch: Yeah. That gets laid down there. So it's not a distraction when it later happens. And also, I guess it's important not to stuff your book with stuff that you've decided, and as part of your world building.

To resist the temptation to show off your research, if you like, and keep it out if you don't need it.

Angeline Trevena: Yeah, absolutely. Is probably the question I get asked the most. How do you know what world building you need to put in your book? And what not to put in? So I have a bit of a rule. It's one of those flexible rules. There are times that you'll have to step outside of it, but ideally any world building that makes it to your book should do one of three things.

It should either reveal something about the character. It should either push the plot forward. Or it should be exploring themes. Or it can be doing more than one of those things. If it's doing none of those things, then you need to ask yourself if it really needs to be in there. It might be that you do. It is a flexible rule where sometimes you might have to step outside of that.

Make sure as much as possible you're showing your world building, rather than just telling it. There are going to be times when you need to just tell world building. But the ideal way is to show it through action. So it might just be as simple as a way a character reacts to something that would tell you whether it's normal or not normal in that world.

Or through action, the way they interact with the world. If they get arrested for a certain thing, then you know that that's illegal in that world. So that's the best way to reveal your world building through action. You can also reveal it through conversational, although try to avoid the, as you know, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, which is just a different way of info dumping.

Sometimes you will have to tell a bit of world building. But make sure it's either revealing character, pushing your plot forward, or exploring themes of your book. And those are the ideal things, it should be doing one or more of those.

James Blatch: That comes back to a lot of the stuff we talk about with writing, is showing not telling. And trusting your reader, you don't have to. If they're doing things a particular way in a spaceport because of gravity, you don't have to spell it out sometimes as you say, it'll become obvious to them. Trust the reader. It's difficult. That's the most difficult thing. Those of us who are new to writing, is I think the most difficult thing.

Angeline Trevena: It's one of those things that it can only be learned through just doing it. The more books you write, the more you know how to do it. It is just practise.

James Blatch: Yeah. Well 30 sort of prompts for world building is a brilliant start for your series. But you say the other three, remind what the other three books go into.

Angeline Trevena: So How to Destroy the World is dystopia and post-apocalyptic. From Sanctity To Sorcery is magic systems and belief systems. How to Create History is history, myths, and monsters.

James Blatch: Let's talk about magic for a little bit then. It's another area that you write in. I don't write magic. In fact, I think my books are kind of the opposite, because they're kind of engineering-y where there's fixed problems, and compromises to make because things don't work or have to be fitted in.

Whereas magic, part of me thinks, well, isn't it easy if it's magic? Because you can just say, well, that's magic and that's like a spell in Hogwarts suddenly solves everything very quickly and easily.

Presumably you've got to do the same thing. You've got to put some restrictions on it. Otherwise, it's not believable or fun.

Angeline Trevena: Absolutely. Because if magic is all powerful and no restrictions and no consequences of using it, then you set up your character's main goal that they want to get to through your book. They achieve it on page one and that's the end of your story.

So magic systems, you can make very, very tight magic systems. And you say that you're engineering writing is like the opposite. Not at all. It's actually incredibly similar to when you're writing a really strict, tight magic system. You can write a looser, more chaotic magic system, but the things that you need, yes, you absolutely need restrictions.

Especially if you're writing a very tight magic system and you can use this as conflict points. So your character might need a certain herb or a certain kind of metal, and that might be something that's really rare in your world. It might be something that's really expensive, or it might be something that's illegal to have.

It might be that your magic works much better when you're near the sea or by a lake. It might be that you can't use magic under a full moon. So you put these restrictions in, in order so that you can create conflict, which of course is the basis of every story.

If you don't have restrictions, you can have a magic system with no restrictions at all, but then instead you want to have consequences. So it might be that every time you use magic, you get sick. Or it reveals your location. So you can use a consequence that's physical like that and actually based in the magic. Or you can have a social consequence instead.

So it might be that using magic is completely illegal. So it might be a manmade consequence, or it might be a magical consequence. But put those restrictions and those consequences in, and that's where you find your conflict with your magic system.

A strict magic system is exactly the same as engineering. You need specific steps that you go through. If one thing breaks or doesn't work properly, then the outcome is a complete failure and you need specific resources and ingredients. So they're actually very, very similar things.

James Blatch: Interesting. That's me told about that. Very good. And does it end up, you think a better story, if you give yourself more restrictions to manoeuvring? Because generally in writing, we are told to put our characters in difficult positions and the story gets better from a reader point of view.

Angeline Trevena: Yeah, it totally depends. Some people just love really strict magic systems. I do. I really, really love them. And some people prefer looser, more chaotic magic systems. And just like anything you write, there's an audience out there for it.

With the magic systems, if you want to write tight, strict magic systems, there is absolutely an audience for that. If you want to write much looser ones with fewer rules, or maybe where you don't just actually lay out the rules at all in your book, then there's also an audience for that. So just as readers prefer different things.

A tight magic system gives you more conflict to use within the magic system. But a looser magic system, you can still create just as much conflict from other places in your story anyway. If you put a really loose magic system in an exceedingly dystopian world, you've already got all the conflict you need anyway, without putting tight restrictions on your magic system.

James Blatch: Who do you go to talk to other authors in similar areas? Because I can imagine that there's quite a lot of discussion that goes on amongst authors writing these types of worlds.

Angeline Trevena: Oh, absolutely. I'm very lucky that there are some live events that I go to. Actually last month, I was at FantasyCon, which is run by the British Fantasy Society. And I have a group of friends that all, we all go to the same cons each year.

Much as I'd love to think of us in the same way as like CS Lewis and the JRR Tolkien used to sit in the pub and discuss with this. Obviously I'm not likening myself to either of those, but yeah, it can get a little bit like that.

James Blatch: Yeah. Well, it's brilliant discussion. You've given us lots of things to think about and it's interesting, isn't it? How it might sound, as you said, I talk about engineering in the real world and the A63 and what it was like in 63. You all talk about magic and other worlds and other universes, and yet so many similar themes and much, much closer similarities for writers than you might first suspect.

Show, don't tell. Have your rules in place. And don't let your cleverness get in the way of the story, which I guess is probably easier. It's just as easy in my word. I could show my research, which I love doing. I fall down rabbit holes doing my research and it's tempting to put it out there. Brilliant.

Now I think you've got your books, obviously. You better tell us where they're available. I guess they're on all the usual platforms, are they?

Angeline Trevena: Yeah. They are all available in ebook. There is a box set where you can get the first three together in a box set. I publish those wide, so they are available pretty much everywhere you can buy eBooks, including from my own website. You can buy them direct.

The paperbacks are only available on Amazon. But the thing you get with the paperback is a place to keep all your notes together. But obviously not everyone likes pens and paper like I do. Some people like apps and digital notes.

James Blatch: You fit in very well with CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien with your pens and paper and your notebook. And you've also got this worksheet, which you sent me a link to before. It sounds like a great thing perhaps to give away we. We can come up with a link in a second.

Creating a timeline. Do you want to just talk about that?

Angeline Trevena: It's a worksheet about how to create a timeline for your world, how to you create the history for it. And importantly, how much history to put in your book because we can go a bit crazy on that.

James Blatch: Very good advice. So if we say self-publishing, all one word, then I'll make sure that the link to that book is there. That's great, Angeline.

Angeline Trevena: It's been fun. I can talk about world building forever.

James Blatch: Well, I think we will have to talk about it again, because it's been a really interesting interview. And like I say, the common themes always strike me as a very ... It'll be enjoyed, I think beyond people just writing fantasy books. Because I've learned from it as well.

And you are in England. I think you're a second person in the row I've interviewed, who's here in jolly old England.

Angeline Trevena: Yay.

James Blatch: Whereabouts are you?

Angeline Trevena: In the Midlands. Although, not from there originally, hence the accent. I actually grew up on the edge of Dartmoor. So it was interesting you saying about that. Hound of the Baskervilles was set just down the road from where I grew up.

James Blatch: There you go. Yeah, we did mention that, didn't we? Yeah. Great. Okay. Well, Angeline, thank you very much, indeed. And if people pop over to to get that timeline book. Check out the books on Amazon. The work, the actual paperback sound perfect, don't they? Do a bit of actual world building.

Angeline Trevena: Yeah. Collect all your notes in one place.

James Blatch: Angeline, thank you.

Angeline Trevena: Thank you very much for having me.

James Blatch: There we go. You write fiction set in the real world with real things. You don't have hover cars, or you're not in the future, and there's no wizards or magic. But nonetheless, I bet you still struggle sometimes to remember what you've created, what's available, who's done what, and all the rest of it?

Mark Dawson: Oh god, yeah. There's 40 books. It's very easy to forget. So I've actually got someone from the community, who I said will be up for this, that they kind of maintain a Bible for me. So they read the books and they update a document there, I can then go back and see.

This is not really world building. It is a matter of consistency. I've a couple of times have been pulled up by advanced readers after I've stubbornly tried to include a character I killed off in a previous book. She's like, "You've done it again. He's dead." So that has been a challenge, but just about managed to get over it.

James Blatch: Oh, wow. That wasn't spotted after publication?

Mark Dawson: No, thankfully, she spotted before it went out. Both times, the same person spotted twice. So she's well attuned to this character popping up when he is supposed to be six feet under.

James Blatch: Yeah. And of course, as we mentioned in the interview, to help you with that process, Angeline does have a book available to you, which is called Creating a Timeline by Angeline Trevena. We can give that away to you for a free, if you go to, all one word. Very useful. Angeline has put a lot of thought into how this works and to bring some structure to it. Yeah. So that's it. Excellent.

Thank you very much, indeed for this. Next time you and I record a wrap, hopefully we'll be in the desert, or in the oasis that is Las Vegas. And then we'll be back after that. And we'll talk about the conference a bit and we've got some good stuff to come. Really good interviews. We'll try and pick up some guests.

One of the things I think Tom and I will do in particular, is we'll go to as many sessions as possible in 20Books and pick out those people giving really good value lessons for indie authors, and we'll get them on the podcast. So you don't have to go to Vegas if you don't want to.

Right. That's it. Let's go and get something stuffed up on noses.

Mark Dawson: Oh yeah.

James Blatch: Not that old thing. Not that stuff you used to do when you were a lawyer.

Mark Dawson: We'll do that in Vegas.

James Blatch: Swab sticks. No, not with me. A little beer will do for me. Thank you very much indeed. All that remains for me to say Is it a goodbye from him.

Mark Dawson: And a goodbye from me. Goodbye.

James Blatch: Goodbye.

Mark Dawson: Get show notes, the podcast archive, and free resources to boost your writing career at Join our thriving Facebook group at Support the show at And join us next week for more help and inspiration so that you can make your mark as a successful indie author.

Mark Dawson: Publishing is changing. So get your words into the world and join the revolution with The Self Publishing Show.

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