Wednesday, May 9, 2012

An Interview with Carol Berg by DeAnna Knippling

One of the first published writers that I met at Pikes Peak Writers was Carol Berg in late 2007 or early 2008. At my first conference, I listened to her talk about worldbuilding, and I’ve found it very helpful since—and of course she’s created some of my favorite worlds for some of my very favorite characters to play around in.

Fortunately for me, I had the chance to meet her as a member of PPW before I ever read her work, so I don’t get completely flabbergasted when I talk to her (unlike some writers). So when I had the chance to ask her some questions for the PPW blog, of course I said yes, and of course I wanted to know about her worldbuilding...

1. One of the first classes that I went to at my first Pikes Peak Writers' Conference was your class on worldbuilding; I still use a lot of the same techniques today. Your books always feature great worldbuilding, and you mentioned that you use a lot of the principals of software design in your worldbuilding. How does that work?

Good worldbuilding, like good software, depends on logical connection, implemented with language.

When I wrote software, while having a very general idea of the overall structure, I would design and implement a piece at a time - just enough to get started. I would exercise it, get it like I wanted, and then move on to another piece. If the whole structure is designed at once, a new event in the customer requirements (or the plot!!) could make whole sections obsolete!

In a similar fashion, I start with a general idea of the overall structure of a novel's world (e.g., a Mediterranean area kingdom in a time period paralleling our early 17th century). But I don't define the entire world - cultures, geography, economics, religion, magic - at one time. I want just enough for the opening scene, more if it's something I'm going to have to research - like monasteries in the opening chapter of Flesh and Spirit. I need to know a setting and season where the opening scene occurs. And I need enough of the other aspects of the world to create a vivid scene, to have something juicy going on, and my character dressed (or not!), ready to speak, and reveal a bit about him- or herself.

If I'm going to reveal something about the magic early on - always a good idea to set readers' expectations - I'll spend some time working on a magic system that is unique to this world. I come up with basic premises for how the magic is going to work. Is it telepathy? Is it spellworking? Is it wand waving? Is magic learned or inherited? Who has it and who doesn't? If everyone has it, then what are the implications? Must it be practiced? Are magical objects used? Are there conflicts among practitioners? Where do they derive their power? Things like that. I consider boundaries early on. No reader likes magic that can do anything. And I consider consequences. Do magic workers get depleted, and if so, how do they replenish? I name all these parts - using words that will be easy to remember (just like naming objects in software design.) And I usually keep a record of what I decide.

Just as in good software, all these bits and pieces must be connected logically. The geography of my kingdom must be reflected in the season, in the climate, in appropriate flora and fauna. But I don't have to list every tree early on, because I might end up setting every scene in the story inside a building - in which case I need to know how people in such a climate and such a society would build their holy places or their king's residences or in common hovels. Which means I need to know if there are there peasants or tenant farmers or freeholders or serfs. Interconnections that will not necessarily be explained at any time, but that I must know.

I can make anything happen in my novels, and set it in any kind of place I want. But everything must be interconnected logically to make a coherent whole. Just like a good piece of software.

2. When you're reading someone else's books, how do you know that you're going to be in a great world, and about how long does it take for you to decide?

That varies, as you might expect, because many writers do as I do, reveal only a bit at a time. For me the important part of opening a book is meeting a character I'm going to enjoy spending time with. If there is something about the world that piques my interest all the better. But one of my favorite fantasy worlds, as introduced in Nine Princes in Amber by Roget Zelazny, begins in a mental hospital that is quite 20th century. Only slowly are we introduced to the notion of Amber and its thousands of variant realities that proceed from beauty and clarity toward chaos as one travels.

3. What are your favorite worlds to be in--that is, what's your favorite world that you've written so far, and what are your favorite worlds from other writers?

I honestly do love all my worlds. Perhaps the fact that my yet-to-be-written series, The Sanctuary Duet, will be set in the world of Navronne and Aeginea - from Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone - will make it apparent that this is the one I was most eager to return to.  I set up a lot of complexity in this world, that I didn't have the chance to explore because of where the story led me. These new books will not be sequels, but set in essentially the same time frame as the other two. Yet it would have also been fun to return to the world of the Rai-kirah books. Probably a close second. But then again, the D'Arnath books held a lot of unexplored territory as well - most as the aftermath of the final events in Daughter of Ancients (still one of my favorites of all my books. Talk about turning the world topsy turvy!)

As for other authors' worlds, there are many.  Amber is very close to the top. And I very much like how Jim Butcher has designed and revealed his magical Chicago. While populating his everyday world with standard urban fantasy creatures, he also has included the Nevernever, the world of the sidhe and many other magical creatures with its own seasons and societies and hierarchies, that lies beyond the world we know. Very well done. I believe it all - though there is a lot that has not been explored or explained on the page.

4. What do you wish that every writer knew about building worlds?

That to make a world seem real, you have to know a lot more than you show. That you have to consider how our world works - how economies and migrations and conquests and geology and cultures actually fit together.  In very few societies in history have people all spoken the same language, worshiped the same gods, or lived without any viable economic system (probably none!). And yet, despite all one needs to know - eventually, not at first - the world should seem the natural environment for the characters and the story. The story and characters should not be shaped to "service" an elegantly designed world.

Carol recently completed the Collegia Magica series and re-released her novel Song of the Beast.  She’s currently working on a new duet set in the world of Flesh and Spirit.  Yay!  More books...for more information, visit her website at

About the Writer:  DeAnna Knippling started freelancing in May 2011 and wouldn’t be able to do it without her wonderful family and friends, especially her husband.  In fact, she owes a lot to Pikes Peak Writers for helping her be a better writer, especially through the Write Brains, both in the lectures and in meeting lots of other writers.

Her reason for writing is to entertain by celebrating her family’s tradition of dry yet merry wit, and to help ease the suffering of lack of self-confidence, having suffered it many years herself.  She also likes to poke around and ask difficult questions, because she hates it when people assume something must be so.

For more kicks in the writerly pants, see her blog at or her ebook How to Fail & Keep on Writing, available at Smashwords, B&N, Amazon, and OmniLit.

1 comment:

  1. Great interview, and great advice on worldbuilding--thanks!


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