World Building Pantser-Style

Woman with umbrella walking across plaza in the rain
Since we’re getting rainy (and snowy) weather, I thought I’d share that with you with a picture.

A few years ago, I went to a panel on world-building at a con  I was kind of cautious because my experience with any kind of world-building always started with this recommendation:

Buy a 3-right binder and a pack of tabs.  Take this list of questions and answer every single one about your world.  Only then can you write your story.

Pretty much a huge turn off to a pantser like me.  It was one of the reasons I didn’t do speculative fiction for a long time.  By the time I did all that recommended world building, I’d have lost interest not only in the story but even the world.

But this panel did something different, and I was reminded of while I was working on a scene.  They said, first just start writing the story, then world build…because otherwise it’s possible to never get around to writing the story.

They also said to think about why cities or towns were built in a particular location, and this got really interesting because I hadn’t thought of cities like that before.

With a lot of the modern cities, it’s not always that obvious.  If you walked out to Alexandria, VA today and looked around, you would never know that it was site of bustling tobacco trade in the 1700s.   Now pleasure boats are hooked up to the docks and people feed the ducks.

There are also ruins in Egypt for places that no longer exist because the Nile changed course and that part of the world dried up.  Clive Cussler did a novel called Sahara with something similar where there was a river in the 1800s and a Confederate ironclad got into the river.  Shipwreck in the desert!

Still one of my favorite books.  But I digress.

I wandered in this direction today because in my scene I have a town that’s kind of in the middle of nowhere.  And it really is about connecting the dots and making sure all those connections get into the story.  I was surprised at how many pieces were already there…creative brain was just sitting back and laughing at me until I figured it out.

For your reading pleasure, some interesting reading on why cities are built where they are.



Muscle Woman and High Fiving a Robot

First up, some bragging points:  My short story “A Quartet of Clowns” got an honorable mention in the Writers of the Future Contest.  No publication, but I’m moving up.

This weekend, I was at Ravencon, a science fiction convention that’s held every year, now in Williamsburg, VA.  It used to be in Richmond, but the hotel hired new staff, who jacked up the price, so they moved to the new location.

I was hoping for nice weather.  Instead, it was rain and gray skies all the way up.

I had two goals for the con.  The first was to use the hotel’s swimming pool and get a little swimming in. For the con, it was to participate more, because when I do I’m memorable.  Not sure why, but everyone remembers me.

So I had to pick better panels than I’ve had in the past.  A lot of the writing ones tend to be beginner level, so I don’t want to participate (and in some cases, I think what they’re giving out is really wrong).  I scoped out the panels about week before, though first contact changed that.

I got in a quick swim before the con started. About ten laps, which wasn’t much (the pool was small). I also did pool pullups. I use the handles on the ladder to do it.

Then off to the con. The first sessions included a panel on world building.  I think one person suggested the world building topic, because there was a lot of world building panels, and nearly always the same writers on the panels.   One of the commentaries on horses came from a horse enthusiast on panel.  In fantasy novels, everyone always has a horse, but horses are really expensive (why they hung horse thieves).  That made me note a comment to add to the short story I was working on (called Lady Pearl and now in submission).

After that, it was off to a Star Trek 50th anniversary panel—it’s hard to believe it has been 50 years.  The panelists went through all the various incarnations of Trek.  There had been two panels on Star Trek scheduled that I planned to attend, but after this one, I had my fill.  Never thought I’d say that about Star Trek.  When I was growing up, I had a shrine in my room—everything I had all displayed.

I chatted with the panelists before the panels—sitting in the front row is great for interaction.

Saturday started with another trip to the pool. Then off to a panel on robots, which is where my post title comes from.  There was team of teenagers who had participated in an annual contest for building robots.  They’re given a task—in this case, climbing a ramp—and they have to build and program a robot that can accomplish the task.  Everything is Open Engineering Book, so all the teams can use what someone else comes up with to learn.

Two of the team members were girls.  They built a robot which looked like the lunar rover.  It had a hand on the top that gave you a high five, which was pretty cool.

And it was girls, which was awesome,

Then off to Flags on the Moon, which is exactly what it was.  The panelist talked about the trials of trying to stand a flag up on the moon and how many were standing.  We got to hear some clips from NASA and see some moon videos.   This is from NASA on the status of the flags.   No one’s been there, but NASA can tell their presence by the shadows they cast in photos.

World Building: Creating Fictional Political Systems was next.  This one presented an interesting idea, which is that a lot of writers just use the U.S. system.  How our system is unique and the only one like it, so others are better choices.  The panelists thought if there was a world government, it would be more parliamentary.

Next was the Baen Traveling Roadshow.  Reps from the company show us what’s going to be released and give away books. Honestly, it was great looking at the posters of covers they had up. Some really awesome artwork.

And back to World Building with First Contact and Politics.  Hmm.  Do you think the election might be influencing the panels?  First contact is always depicted in films as the aliens contacting the government, but the panelists thought aliens would contact merchants.  Merchants are always the ones branching out to find more markets.

My last panel was on Writing the Short Story.  The panelist was Bud Sparhawk, who’s been in Analog and Asimov’s.  He was joined by another writer, whose name I can’t recall.  That writers was a pantser, so he was the opposite of everything that was Bud.  I didn’t get as much out of the panel as I was hoping, and it was at a really bad time (10:00), so not much on the audience side.  The woman sitting next to me took notes on her checkbook register and had green lipstick that Bud said was distracting (okay, well, it was a con, and at least she wasn’t wearing one polka dot).

For Sunday, it was back to the pool first thing in the morning. This time, a mother brought her daughter, probably no more than 12, to play in the pool. It was 7:00 a.m., so this was very odd. After I did the pool pull-ups, the daughter tried it. Couldn’t do it at all. But then I’m Muscle Woman. I’ve been working on my arm muscles.

I looked at the panels for Sunday, and the only one I might have attended was late in the afternoon.  I booked out at 8:00 a.m., hoping to avoid the predicted rain.  Needless to say, it rained the entire way back and turned into a downpour once I hit Quantico.

Oh, dear.  Need to go off line.  Thunderstorm is coming in.

Writing Mis-Advice Reported as Facts #1

Earlier this year, I took a class on writing produtivity, and one of the parts was listing all the writing junk that I’d heard over the years. You know, those things that get passed around by writers, sound reasonable, and yet may not actually be true. Here are five of them:

  1. You can’t make money writing

I’ve heard this one back since the 1970s. My uncle wrote during the pulp era and could never make enough money to write full time. What it tends to say is “You’ll never be successful” with the implication not to try too hard.

Granted, if I wrote one book every few years, I probably wouldn’t make a whole lot of money unless it hit the best seller list. A lot of indie authors are making money simply by producing a lot of stories.

  1. Build up your writing credits by writing for free

I also heard this one probably as early as the 1970s, but definitely into the 1980s. I remember looking at a Writer’s Market and seeing the percentages of writers submitting to pro-rate versus the non-paying. Then I’d think, “I’ll never have a chance, so I’ll try the easier one.”

I got a really rude shock when I applied to be a charter member of Interntional Thriller Writer, and they pretty much told me that none of it counted. Even submitting to the agents, I started finding that a lot of it didn’t count because it was non-paying, which, unfortunately, also said something about my writing that I wasn’t aware of.

What I also didn’t realize I was doing was that I telling myself that I was never going to be good enough to be professionally published and I wrote to that level. Once I started only submitting to professional paying magazines (.05 or more a word), I started improving dramatically and have been getting personal comments.

I wish I’d understood this one earlier.

  1. Delete the first fifty pages

I heard this one back in the 1980s I think. It assumes all writers spend the first fifty pages doing backstory and not story.

Of course, I was a writer who didn’t start with backstory. What listening to this gem of advice got me was starting a book in the middle, rather than where it needed to start. It’s not a good thing to start in the middle, especially for a pantser. Things came into the story out of order and distorted it into a mess.

  1. All stories use the 3-Act Structure

When I started writing in the 1970s, not one writing book talked about 3-act structure. It appears to have surfaced because of Blake Edward’s book Save the Cat, which is very popular. It’s gotten so embedded, I hear writers say, “Three act structure has been around as long as they’ve been doing plays,” as if all plays were in exactly that structure.

Uh, well, no. I was a theater major, I knew better. Just look up Shakesphere’s plays. See how many acts they have. I’ve attended plays with a very long first act (due to set requirements) and two short acts; a one act play; a two act play. It just depends.

Three acts started out in the movie industry because that’s when the reel ran out.

I’m not an outliner, so when I tried the 3-act structure, it put an artificial structure on top of the structure already in my story and turned it into a mess. I started thinking of adding something to end the second act and writing to that instead of following the natural flow of the story.

  1. To do (fantasy) world-building, you must start with a three-ring binder

Years ago, I was thinking of doing a fantasy novel. Then I heard the advice that to world build, I needed to do a tremendous amount of prep work. It was, “Start with a three ring binder and tabs.” Then I was supposed to answer a lengthy list of questions about the world.

I don’t outline at all, so I was so hugely turned off by this “requirement” that I never write the fantasy novel. Having to do all that prep work as described took all the fun of writing the story away.   It was years later that I discovered that the people giving that piece of advice were people who enjoyed building the world almost more than the story.

But it’s interesting that at a recent con I went to, the panelist in charge told a writer who asked what needed to do to world build was told “Write the story first.” No fussing about notebooks and tabs and tons of questions.

Any “facts” that you heard along the way that turned out to be really wrong?

Guest Post: Liv Rancourt on Five Tips For Writing Fight Scenes

Cover for The Santa Drag showing a front view of Santa Claus against a pale pink and white background.Today, Liv Rancourt is going to be guest blogging on Soldier, Storyteller.  Liv was in the same blogging class, We Are Not Alone, that was I in, and she has a  great book called The Santa Drag out just in time for Christmas.  An excerpt is at the end of this post.  Liv was also kind enough to help me with research on Washington State for a short story I’m working on for a Green Man anthology.  Onto the action stuff!

Thanks, Linda, for the chance to write a guest post for you blog. I took a look through some of your older posts and saw you like things in fives, and since I’m working on choreographing the final showdown for my current WIP, I thought I’d see if I could come up with five ideas on how to write fight scenes for your readers.

  1. Describe the setting before the fight, so you don’t need to waste time during the heat of battle. Poorly timed details can kill your momentum and bog down the scene. One blogger suggested having the characters visit the setting a chapter before the actual fight, to get some of the scene building out of the way. While that may not always be possible, taking a couple lines in the middle of things to describe the antique Wedgwood vase that your hero just smashed over the villains head is going to kill your tempo. You can work details in as you go, but be cognizant of how it effects your pacing.
  2. Fights don’t last long, and a real bar brawl quickly becomes a bear-hugging wrestling match. Which is another way of saying you should have a good understanding of how fights work  – regardless of the style of fighting or weapons involved – so  that the action you present is realistic and believable. One of the things I love about Laurell K Hamilton’s writiing is how knowledgeable she is about the guns her character Anita Blake plays with. Laurell really knows her stuff, and  her commitment to getting the details right helps the rest of the story work.
  3. Make sure YOU have a clear idea of who’s doing what where, because if you can’t picture it, the reader won’t be able to either. All of my five points are interrelated, but this one is key. Whether you need to borrow your kids little plastic toys to stand in for your characters or draw diagrams to help clarify things, you need to know exactly who’s doing what where. The action has to make sense in terms of the setting details, meaning doors and windows can’t come and go, and if you’re writing fantasy or paranormal, you have to be consistent with the worldbuilding you’ve already done. The more truth you can put on the page, the better the scene will work.
  4. Writing fight scenes are a little like writing sex scenes in that it’s easy to drop into a ‘he did this then she did that – put tab A into slot B’ pattern, which is a recipe for BORING. This is where your creativity and knowledge of the style of fighting (see #2) can come into play. My first draft blocks out the scene in all its clunky, awkward glory. Then I go back through, making certain that each action is physically possible, given the laws of the world I’ve created (see #3). The next trip through is to massage the language, getting rid of any clichés or phrases like the dreaded “he turned and looked”.  I strive for language that is fresh, lively, and supportive of the tension I’m trying to build, so the reader will keep turning the pages.
  5. Conflict is great and all, but make sure that your character’s motivations are clearly tied to the action you’re describing. Action is good, and a fight scene is a great way of moving your plot forward and peeling back layers of your character. It’s more effective if it means something, though, and the more challenges you can throw at your character, the more satisfying the ending will be. Make the conflict cost them something and make it hurt so that the payoff at the end is greater. The build-up, or process that brought your character to the brink of an awful situation, is as important as the fight itself.  Keeping your character’s goals and motivations in mind as you develop the conflict will help make sure EVERY scene moves the story forward.

So there you have five points for building fight scenes. I hope you find them helpful. I also hope you’ll check out my newest release, The Santa Drag. There are absolutely no fight scenes in this one, just a clever holiday story with a warm and fuzzy ending.

Things aren’t always what they seem,

and this shopping mall Santa has secrets only her true love can reveal.



Liv Rancourt writes paranormal and romance, often at the same time. She lives with her husband, two teenagers, two cats and one wayward puppy. She likes to create stories that have happy endings, and finds it is a good way to balance her other job in the neonatal intensive care unit. Liv can be found on-line at her website & blog (, on Facebook (, or on Twitter (

Santa Drag exerpt

On a particularly busy Saturday, I was tired and thinking more about a double shot of espresso than I was about the pile of kids who wanted to sit in my lap. The weak winter sun was making its circle over the atrium where the Christmas Village was set up, and my roommate Shauna was buzzing by every so often to giggle at me from the sidelines. She was trying to get all of her Christmas shopping done in one day, which was a good trick for someone with as many fertile brothers and sisters as she had.

“Come sit on Santa’s lap.” Maya, the photographer and kid-wrangler, invited the next kid in line approach my golden throne. Well, it was fake gold, but the kids didn’t know that.

“No,” said a little girl with a stubborn crease between her brows. She was dressed in Seattle’s version of Christmas formal, a stiff, red velvet dress, likely made from organic fabric dyed with beets and rose hips. On her feet were two-toned leather MaryJanes that probably cost sixty-five dollars. At least the green corkscrew ribbons tied around her blond pigtails looked like they belonged on a child. I made myself as approachable as possible, getting down to her level and producing a big smile.

“Come on, Thula,” her mother said, tapping one French manicured nail on her cell phone. “Go sit up there with Santa so we can take your picture.” She sounded as if this was just one more thing to knock off the list.

“It’s okay, sweetie.” Maya put on her encouraging smile. Maya was a tiny thing, barely bigger than most of the kids we saw, with long dark hair, a tiny gold hoop pierced through one nostril, and bugged-out eyes that looked like they’d been molded out of chocolate. She was non-threatening as an adult could possibly be. The kid stared at her and bit down on her bottom lip. At least she wasn’t crying. Yet.

“You want to come tell Santa what to bring you for Christmas?” I kept my voice pitched down somewhere under my sternum. It helped that I had one of those raspy lady voices that earned me a permanent spot in the tenor section whenever I sang in choir.


Sometimes less is more when you’re dealing with preschoolers. We went back and forth for several minutes until  the kid went from biting her bottom lip to letting it pooch out and tremble. Never a good sign. Finally, after a ton of coaxing, she was more-or-less close to me,  squatting down on the other side of one of the big pretend presents that ringed my throne. That was good enough for her mom, and Maya snapped a picture.

When she was done, the little girl glared at me from behind the big, glossy red ribbon that topped the present. “Bring me a baby brother,” she bellowed and took off running..

Mom’s glare was meaner than the kid’s had been. Hey, it’s not like I made any promises.

The kid ran full tilt past the pseudo-Tyrolean houses that made the Village, and out through the crowds of shoppers. She stopped in the middle of an open space and cut loose, her sobs echoing around the smoky glass dome that covered us. We could hear her carrying on until she and her mom got swallowed up by the Ross store at the end of the north hallway. The whole place fell into a bit of a hush when she was gone, as  everyone exhaled in relief. This close to Christmas, none of us needed a crying child to ratchet up the stress level.

A young mother was next in line. She came into the Christmas Village and positioned a slightly damp baby on my lap, moving as if something hurt. The baby was so young that Mom still looked a little pregnant under her loose denim-blue shirt. Or maybe she was already pregnant with number two. I’m not so good with the principles of baby production. Well, I understand the basic concepts, but haven’t had that many opportunities to put them into practice.

The brief quiet was interrupted by a yodeling squeal that I recognized. I stared into the crowd until I caught Maya looking at me funny. I stuck on a smile as close to my normal, jolly-Santa shtick as I could get, and she settled back down behind her camera. The reason for my roommate Shauna’s squeal had me completely rattled. In the two or three beats I’d looked out from behind my wire-rimmed glasses as Mack-the-girl, I’d seen Shauna giving someone a big hug. A really handsome someone. Joe McBride. Joseph Timothy McBride. The actor. The real-life, got a soap opera gig and several commercials and you saw him in Scream 2 actor. The only guy I ever really loved

Ooh, now she’s got a problem! Will Mack turn all Creepy-Kringle? Will Joe recognize her? What’s a Santa to do?  😉

The Santa Drag is available from Still Moments Publishing, Smashwords, and Amazon.

Magic Systems and the Nazis

When I first started Miasma, I really wasn’t thinking much about magic systems.  A magic system is essentially how the magic works:  What does the character need to do to create his magic?  What is the cost when he uses his magic?  Instead, I was thinking more about the effect of magic.  Since I wanted to show how people misused magic during a war about the time of the Civil War, I wondered what kinds of horrific things people could do.  There might have been some people who would have done experimentation, really to just see what they could d0.  That made me think of the Nazis, and there were photos online (looking at them once was enough).  The result was this:

The skeletal remains were along the back wall of the room, stacked like firewood.  Like they were unimportant.  The three men tried not to look too closely, but it was difficult not noticing that some of the remains belonged to children.

The bones were human, and yet, they weren’t. Deformities twisted and reshaped each bone in ways that were too horrible to imagine.  A skull with the eye sockets smashed too close together.  A femur that ended in an odd-claw-like shape.  Fingers that turned into talons.

The entire scene ended up coming out on revision, but when I started thinking about the magic system, I returned to the images of Nazi Germany — and Hollywood.  Just look at any alien or monster movie and you can see what the imagination comes up with.  Some of it you’re probably glad it’s only on film!  Then I came across this free ebook of “Visceralization,” and I started thinking about what if they needed to picture what they wanted in order to do magic?   That could have some gruesome possibilities — anyone remember the Star Trek episode of Charlie X?  There’s one very disturbing image of Charlie’s power in there.

However, as I started writing, the magic system mutated.  Everyone in the story has magic does their magic the same way, with pictures — except for the main character.  He does his a little differently, and it allows him to do some things that no one else can do.  Never mind how much trouble some of this is going to get him into …

Royal Wedding Excitement — Not

The Washington Post has a Sunday section (on Saturday, of course) about the Royal Wedding.  One of the commentaries I’ve been seeing over the last week is that the U.S. doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in it.  That’s a very different response than when Diana and Charles were married.  Then it was a BIG DEAL.  It seemed like it was everywhere.  It was a fairy tale come to life, where the princess gets her prince (though Charles, IMO, was more of a frog).

Why not?  Maybe it’s because it was different time then.  Maybe it’s the 24 hour news cycle that’s made everything exciting and a major news event, so therefore, nothing is.  Maybe it was Diana herself.  She certainly had something about her that few other people have.

One of the things writers do is take their experiences and reshape them into the story (“Write what you know,” which usually gets misunderstood).  I have a Queen in my story, and her sister, who died before the story started.  The sister is like Diana, in the respect that everyone just loved her and loved taking photos of her and painting her.  Since this is a character who never appears on page and all everyone has are the images, the fantasy image works, and I use what I remember from the Royal Wedding.  But for the modern Queen, that’s based on the women in Washington, DC — the political leaders, the CEOs, the generals.  Then I folded in my military experience, where you’re in a man’s world and have to adapt, plus all the commentary on women in the political world (it’s typical to get a detailed article on the cleavage a woman politician shows — but by celebrity standards was positively tame).  That’s how you get “write what you know.”  Taking shared experiences like this and speculating on what they can do if combined together.

Groceries today (Trader Joe’s).  Later on a trip to the library to pick up a book I have on hold, Lonesome Dove, which I’ve heard is in omniscient.  I’m hoping by then it’ll warm up a little.  The heat’s off, and it’ll be miserable trying to write!