Worldbuilding on the fly

Writing is a long, involved process. Worldbuilding is an integral part of that process, in those works that need it. And just as there are different ways to go about writing a novel, movie, or video game, there’s no one way to build the world your story needs.

A lot of authors plan their works out in detail. For more visual media, it’s almost always this way, simply because there you have things like an effects budget and the limitations of the medium. The writer is only one part of a larger team, and he has to fit in with that team. In those cases, the world, like most other parts of the story, must be constructed before any actual writing is done.

On the other hand, those of us working purely in the written word don’t have such constraints. We’re usually working alone (not counting editors, cover artists, etc.; indies like me don’t have to worry about any of those anyway), and thus we don’t have to coordinate quite as much. That means we aren’t required to plot out the details beforehand. We can get away with a much rougher sketch of where we want the story to go.

In “writing jams” like NaNoWriMo, it’s crucial that we work this bit of literary improvisation. We’re often working under a strict, if informal, time limit, so there’s not enough time to waste on the equivalent of storyboarding. For Nocturne last November, to give you a concrete example, I started with not much more than a beginning and a vague idea of an ending. As I progressed, I filled in more and more details, and that sometimes took the story in directions I could not have anticipated on November 1. It’s a more organic style of writing, and it may not be for everyone. But it works for building the story’s world, too.

Throwing something together

Let me put this out there first: if you’re worldbuilding on the fly, so to speak, you’re never going to get anything as deep as if you plan and plot early. But then, that’s not the point of the exercise. Sometimes, you really don’t need a truly deep world, you just need the facsimile of one. You can get that easily enough.

If you don’t mind the necessary limitations of the process, then we’re ready to go. First, how much work you’ll need to do will depend on what you’re making. Short stories (and similar works in some other medium) might not require much more than a few names. Novels and longer works are going to need more thought. But it won’t be too much more. So let’s take a look at some of the different parts of worldbuilding that we can tinker with in the middle of writing:

  • Character names: Obviously, it’s almost certain you’ll have the protagonist’s name chosen before you start writing. (If you’ve got more than one, then the same goes for all of them.) And other major characters will likewise be the kind that can’t be, say, randomly chosen or generated. Everybody else—the NPCs, to use gaming terminology—is fair game. If they’re only going to appear in one scene, how much thought do they really need?

  • Place names: The same goes for places, in general. Those central to the story are most likely to be worked out prior to the writing. Minor places mentioned in passing can be named as they come up. Those that no one will ever go to are just names, after all, so what does it matter how you came up with them?

  • Cultural aspects: These are a bit harder, because it’s not just a matter of picking a name from a list. But foreign peoples, for instance, can be given “foreign” mannerisms (defined by your target audience or the standards set by the central cast), and that will serve in a pinch. Again, it’s a matter of prioritization: the less important something is, the less time you should spend thinking about it.

  • Geography: This one’s almost too easy. If your story doesn’t include a map, you practically get a blank canvas. Sticking to the common conventions of our planet (rivers run downhill, etc.) takes you most of the way. You can also extend this to astronomy, for example. Need a solar eclipse? They may only happen once or twice a year around the world, but your story is special. Unless it’s centered on observations of the sun, few will care that the event happened at just the right time and place. (Of course, if that eclipse lasts an hour and a half, you’ll need to provide an explanation as to why.)

Pay no attention

Naming is the easiest part of worldbuilding, in terms of efficiency. For the cost of making a few words, you get something that will stick in a reader’s mind. And this works even when you don’t put too much effort into making them. Sure, if you throw together a mishmash of names from around the world, they’re going to clash. But keeping to a small circle of sources gets you quite far.

This is what I’ve done for my Linear Anthology series of short stories. Most “common” names are simple English words describing people, constructions, or natural phenomena: River, Jasmine, Ford, Melody. The higher class of the setting, however, uses names I’ve drawn from a number of sources that are, in our world, in close proximity. Some come from Scandinavia, others from Finnish, Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian—all places not too far from each other. In a few cases, I’ve changed spellings, and that’s a good way to “hide” the true nature of your names. But since I don’t expect ever doing a book signing in Helsinki, I’m not worried about someone calling me out on the absurdity of my names.

Basically, what I’ve done is decide on a theme for my naming. From there, I’ve tweaked a few things as I’ve gone, such as deciding that the Scandinavian-style names are restricted to the northern part of the setting. These little additions don’t change much in the grand scheme of things, but they add a little bit of flavor that makes your world feel a slightly more alive.

For culture, it’s a little harder. In a short story, you might not have to worry about it too much, but longer works will have many references to a culture, and it’s best if you’re not slavishly copying medieval Europe (for fantasy) or Star Trek (for sci-fi). Here, you can swipe an idea or two from somewhere you like…but only if it fits. And remember that cultural changes will have knock-on effects throughout society. It might be great to add a caste system, but then that will create secondary conflicts with protagonists going outside their “appropriate” station. Which may be what you want, come to think of it.

As for the world itself, fantasy authors can all but assume they’re working with a world similar enough to Earth that they only have to worry about minor differences. Science fiction gets less of a pass by default, but you can still lean hard on the genre tropes here. That’s why they’re tropes: they’re the literary shortcuts we’ve come to accept. If you’re writing a sci-fi short story where it doesn’t matter how FTL travel works, then why bother coming up with an explanation that will, inevitably, leave at least somebody unsatisfied? Working under a time limit, that’s just wasteful. And you can always go back and fill in the blanks later, if need be.

And that’s really the moral of this post. You don’t have to get everything right the first time. Paint in broad strokes to begin with, then fill in details as needed. It may turn out that you never needed them at all.

Let’s make a language, part 22c: Around the house (Ardari)

Linguistically speaking, one of the main differences between Ardari and Isian is that the former doesn’t use compounding to create the names of its rooms. The basic term for a room is dan, but room names all use the -ègh suffix denoting a place or location where an action takes place. So the bedroom is rhèchègh “sleeping place”, the kitchen a lòstyègh “cooking place”, and so on. These are actually generic terms created relatively recently, and some Ardari people still use older, nonstandard words for them.

Inside the rooms, things are much as you’d expect. The bedroom has a mäs “bed”, the dining room features kombas “table” and söton “chair”. In the kitchen you’ll find a sink, or pläsimi. The list goes on, but that’s assuming you’re allowed in. Ardari speakers value their privacy, so the front door will often have a lock (èpri), for which you will need a key (äkja).

Because Ardari has its more complex nominal morphology, we can see a little more of the cultural context here. Note, for example, the gender of some of the words for tools and furnishings. The basket (vevi) is feminine, as are the pot (gyazi) and dish (alli), whereas the knife (yagha) is decidedly masculine. This is most likely a result of certain tasks once being seen as preferring men or women—Ardari women do the cooking and washing, for instance, while cutting things is more of a man’s job. Finally, there’s the curious case of the masculine äkja and feminine èpri; this may be most easily explained as a kind of sexual connotation. Keys fitting into locks, you know.

Word List

  • room: dan
  • bedroom: rhèchègh
  • bathroom: oznèrègh
  • kitchen: lòstyègh
  • dining room: tumègh
  • living room: simègh
  • blade: kirda
  • brush: sols
  • clock: khrona
  • fork: bènk
  • hammer: tojrin
  • key: äkja
  • knife: yagha
  • lamp: djol
  • lock: èpri
  • spoon: lyom
  • basket: vevi
  • bathtub: pläs
  • bed: mäs
  • bottle: cholya
  • bowl: ghob
  • box: aröng
  • chair: söton
  • cup: kykad
  • desk: kyard
  • dish: alli
  • pan: mir
  • pot: gyazi
  • sack: sòpya
  • sink: pläsimi
  • table: kombas

On space battles

It’s a glorious thing, combat in space, or so Hollywood would have us believe. Star Wars shows us an analog of carrier warfare, with large ships (like Star Destroyers) launching out wing after wing of small craft (TIE Fighters and X-Wings) that duke it out amid the starry expanse. That other bastion of popular science fiction, Star Trek, also depicts space warfare in naval terms, as a dark, three-dimensional version of the ship-to-ship combat of yore. Most “smaller” universes ape these big two, so the general idea in modern minds is this: space battles look like WWII, but in space.

Ask anyone who has studied the subject in any depth, however, and they’ll tell you that isn’t how it would be. There’s a great divide between what most people think space combat might be like, and the form the experts have concluded it would take. I’m not here to “debunk”, though. If you’re a creator, and you want aerial dogfighting, then go for it, if that’s what your work needs. Just don’t expect the nitpickers to care for it.

Space is big

The first problem with most depictions of space battles is one of scale. As the saying goes, space is big. No, scratch that. I’ll tell you right now that saying is wrong. Space isn’t big. It’s so huge, so enormous, that there aren’t enough adjectives in the English language to encompass its vastness.

That’s where Hollywood runs into trouble. Warfare today is often conducted via drone strikes, controlled by people sitting at consoles halfway around the world from their targets. We rightfully consider that an impersonal way of fighting, but what’s striking is the 10,000 miles standing between offense and defense. How many Americans could place Aleppo on a map? (The guy that finished third in the last presidential election couldn’t.) Worse, how would you make a drone strike dramatic?

In space, the problem is magnified greatly. Ten thousand miles gets you effectively nowhere. From the surface of Earth, that doesn’t even take you past geostationary satellites! It’s over twenty times that to the Moon, and Mars is (at best) about another 100 times that. In naval warfare, it became a big deal when guns got good enough to strike something over the horizon. Space has no horizon, but the principle is the same. With as much room as you’ve got to move, there’s almost no reason why two craft would ever come close enough to see as more than a speck. A range of 10,000 miles might very well be considered point-blank in space terms, which is bad news for action shots.

Space is empty (except when it isn’t)

Compounding the problem of space’s size is its relative emptiness. There’s simply nothing there. Movies show asteroid belts as these densely packed regions full of rocks bumping into each other and sleek smuggler ships weaving through them. And some stars might even have something like that. (Tabby’s Star, aka KIC 8462852, almost requires a ring of this magnitude, unless you’re ready to invoke Dyson spheres.) But our own Solar System doesn’t.

We’ve got two asteroid belts, but the Kuiper Belt is so diffuse that we’re still finding objects hundreds of miles across out there! And the Main Belt isn’t that much better. You can easily travel a million miles through it without running across anything bigger than a baseball. Collisions between large bodies are comparatively rare; if they were common, we’d know.

Space’s emptiness also means that stealth is quite difficult. There’s nothing to hide behind, and the background is almost totally flat in any spectrum. And, because you’re in a vacuum, any heat emissions are going to be blindingly obvious to anyone looking in the right direction. So are rocket flares, or targeting lasers, radio transmissions…

Space plays its own game

The worst part of all is that space has its own rules, and those don’t match anything we’re familiar with here on Earth. For one thing, it’s a vacuum. I’ve already said that, but that statement points out something else: without air, wings don’t work. Spacecraft don’t bank. They don’t need to. (They also don’t brake. Once they’re traveling at a certain speed, they’ll keep going until something stops them.)

Another one of those pesky Newtonian mechanics that comes into play is the Third Law. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. That’s how rockets work: they spit stuff out the back to propel themselves ahead. Solar sails use the same principle, but turned around. Right now, we’ve got one example (the EmDrive) of something that may get around this fundamental law, assuming it’s not experimental error, but everything in space now and for the near future requires something to push on, or something to push against it. That puts a severe limit on craft sizes, speeds, and operating environments. Moving, for example, the Enterprise by means of conventional thrusters is a non-starter.

And then there’s the ultimate speed limit: light. Every idea we’ve got to get around the light-speed barrier is theoretical at best, crackpot at worst. Because space is huge, light’s speed limit hampers all aspects of space warfare. It’s a maximum for the transmission of information, too. By the time you detect that laser beam, it’s already hitting you.

Reality check

If you want hyperrealism in your space battles, then, you’ll have to throw out most of the book of received wisdom on the subject. The odds are severely stacked against it being anything at all like WWII aerial and naval combat. Instead, the common comparison among those who have researched the topic is to submarine warfare. Thinking about it, you can probably see the parallels. You’ve got relatively small craft in a relatively big, very hostile medium. Fighting takes place over great distances, at a fairly slow speed. Instead of holding up Star Trek as our example, maybe we should be looking more at Hunt for Red October or Das Boot.

But that’s if reality is what you’re looking for. In books, that’s all well and good, because you don’t have to worry about creating something flashy for the crowd. TV and movies need something more, and they can get it…for a price. That price? Realism.

Depending on the assumptions of your universe, you can tinker a bit with the form of space combat. With reactionless engines, a lot of the problems with ship size and range go away. FTL travel based around “jump points” neatly explains why so many ships would be in such close proximity. Depending on how you justify your “hyperspace” or “subspace”, you could even find a way to handwave banked flight.

Each choice you make will help shape the “style” of combat. If useful reactionless engines require enormous power inputs, for instance, but your civilization has also invented some incredibly efficient rockets on smaller scales, then that might explain a carrier-fighter mode of warfare. Conversely, if everything can use “impulse” engines, then there’s no need for waves of smaller craft. Need super-high acceleration in your fighters, but don’t have a way to counteract its effects? Well, hope you like drones, because that’s what would naturally develop. But if FTL space can only be navigated by a human intelligence (as in Dune), then you’ve got room for people on the carriers.

In the end, it all comes down to the effect you’re trying to create. For something like space combat, this may mean working “backward”. Instead of beginning with the founding principles of your story universe, it might be better to derive those principles from the style of fighting you want to portray. It’s not my usual method of worldbuilding, but it does have one advantage: you’ll always get the desired result, because that’s where you started. For some, that may be all you need.

Let’s make a language, part 22b: Around the house (Isian)

Isian speakers have homes, too, and they’ve got no end of stuff in them. So let’s take a look at what they have.

First, as industrialization has come to their lands in modern times, the speakers have begun to adapt to the more typical division of rooms, or hiri. Their names are almost always simple compounds, usually of hir following a word that describes the activity for that room. (This seems to indicate an earlier period where houses weren’t commonly partitioned.) We’ve got the main ubahir, a kind of living room; more accurately, it would be a “sitting room”. Then, there are the twin pirihir “kitchen” and hamahir “dining room”, literally the “cooking room” and “eating room”. Washing is done in the bathroom or hishir (from hishi + hir), and sleeping is for the domhir “bedroom”.

Inside some of these rooms, you may find objects like a chair (ubadom, literally a “sitting bed”, which may indicate that Isian speakers once preferred a reclining posture for relaxation). We eat at the mico “table”, but some tables might be reserved for other uses, like the “writing table” rodomico: a desk.

The kitchen has pots and pans, fani and sicani, and no dining room is complete without a number of dishes or peyt. Of course, with those you’ll have the Western trio of tud “fork”, hasha “knife”, and muta “spoon”, and there may be a ticking decos “clock” on the wall.

These, and the extended list below, are only some of the things you might find around the Isian house. They’re a start, not the whole.

Word List

  • room: hir
  • bedroom: domhir
  • bathroom: hishir
  • kitchen: pirihir
  • dining room: hamahir
  • living room: ubahir
  • blade: farit
  • brush: fosh
  • clock: decos
  • fork: tud
  • hammer: aplar
  • key: kef
  • knife: hasha
  • lamp: olu
  • lock: ikin
  • spoon: muta(s)
  • basket: halban
  • bathtub: hishido
  • bed: dom
  • bottle: odas
  • bowl: uch
  • box: garon
  • chair: ubadom
  • cup: deta(s)
  • desk: rodomico
  • dish: pey
  • pan: sican
  • pot: fan
  • sack: hukho
  • sink: shosuch
  • table: mico

Playing with TypeScript

JavaScript sucks, and we all know it. But it’s the lingua franca of the web (not like WebAssembly is ever taking off), so we have to learn to deal with it. That doesn’t, however, mean we have to write it. Oh, no. There’s a whole subculture of languages that compile into JavaScript, meaning you can write your code in something that looks sane (to you) without worrying about the end result being readable.

This trend really started a few years ago with CoffeeScript, which did an admirable job of making JS look like Ruby. From there, similar projects spun off, like Coco and LiveScript, which were far better in that they didn’t have anything to do with Ruby. And then Microsoft got involved. That’s where TypeScript comes from. Yes, that Microsoft.

But it’s not as bad as it sounds. The language and compiler use the Apache license, and that gives us a bit of protection from the worst of corporate silliness. And that means it might be interesting to look at TypeScript for what it is: an attempt at making a better JavaScript than JavaScript.

Up and running

TypeScript fits into the usual Node-hipster-modern ecosystem. You can install it through npm, and it works with most of the other big JavaScript tools like testing systems. Some of the big “web app” frameworks even use it by default now, meaning that I’m a little behind the times. Oh, and you can also use it with Visual Studio, but I can’t, because that’s Windows-only. (And VS Code is not the same.) But you don’t have to: the homepage even has a link to TypeScript support for the best text editor out there. I’ll leave it to you to decide which one that is, but I’ll tell you that it’s the same one I’m using to write this post.

My type

So you get TypeScript installed, and you’ve got a nifty little compiler that spits out perfectly fashionable JavaScript, but what about the source language? What’s so special about it? In a word: types. (You’ll note that this word makes up half the language’s name.)

Essentially, TypeScript is nothing more than JavaScript with strong typing. That may not seem like much, but it’s actually a huge change that alters the whole way you write code. Variables are typed, functions are typed, objects are typed. To be fair, they all are in JavaScript, too, but that language doesn’t do anything with those types. TypeScript is made to use them. By itself, that’s almost enough to overcome my instinctive hatred of all things Microsoft. Almost.

On top of the bare bones JavaScript gives us, we’ve got tuples, enums, generics (C#-like, so not the best we could get, but far better than what JS offers), and an any type that lets us ignore the type system when necessary. If you wanted to, you could just about get away with writing regular JavaScript, tagging everything as any, and running it through the TypeScript compiler. But why would you do that? You’re supposed to be using a better language, right? So use it! Besides, like any decent strongly-typed language, we can use type inference to save us most of the trouble of specifying what something should be.

The next level

Just having the added safety of stronger typing already gives TypeScript a leg up on its parent language. But if it didn’t offer anything else, I’d tell you not to bother. Fortunately for this post, it has a lot more.

JS is currently in a state of flux. Most (but not all) browsers support ES5, some let you use a lot of the new ES6 features, and the language standard itself has transitioned to the ridiculous rapid-release model that’s all the rage today, so it’s looking like we’ll soon be back in the bad old days of “Best viewed in {browser X}”. Polyfills can only take us so far, you see. For coders writing raw JavaScript, it’s a serious problem making something maximally compatible, and most just throw their hands up and say, “Just use Chrome like everyone else.”

That’s another case where I’ll give the MS team credit. TypeScript takes a lot of the newer JS additions and lets you use them now, just like Babel or other “transpilers”. You can declare your variables with let instead of var, and the compiler will do the right thing. You get the new class syntax for free, which is great if you never could wrap your head around prototype OOP. Generators aren’t even in JS yet, so TypeScript even looks a bit like the future in some cases.


If there’s anything wrong with TypeScript, it’s not the kind of thing that shows up in a cursory inspection of the documentation. No, the main problems are twofold. One, it’s a project started by Microsoft, a company with a history of bad blood towards the open source community. The Apache license helps in that regard, though I don’t think it can ever completely alleviate some people’s fears.

Second, TypeScript has been around for a while now, but it’s only recently been picking up steam. Angular and React both like it a lot, as do some indie game engines like Phaser. But the JS community is fad-driven, and this new acceptance could be an indication of that. If TypeScript is simply “the next big thing”, then interest will fade once some other shiny thing catches the eyes of the hipsters. We can’t prevent that, but we can do our best to ignore it.

Will TypeScript become the future of web development? I can’t say. It’s definitely one option for the present, though. And it’s a pretty good option, from what I’ve seen. I think I’ll play around with it some more. Who knows? Maybe I’ll show you what I’ve made.

Let’s make a language, part 22a: Around the house (Intro)

Think of this part of the series as a chance to catch up on some of that linguistic spring cleaning you’ve been meaning to do. We’ve all been in houses, and we know how many things can be inside them, so taking a look inside the home is a great way to flesh out a conlang with a vast array of terms for all those miscellaneous items we have lying around.

Room to move

Houses, as we know them, are generally divided into a number of rooms. Which ones a house has depends heavily upon the culture, the level of technological advancement, and a few socioeconomic factors. Many apartments, for instance, don’t have kitchens. And while it’s very common in America to have bathing and toilet activities in the same room—the bathroom—not every country does that. On the “technology” side of things, you’re not going to find an entertainment center in a medieval home, but that’s not to say there won’t be a room for entertaining guests. Finally, the houses of the wealthy will, obviously, have more (and more varied) rooms than those of the common folk.

For a conlang, this matters because it’s those rooms that are common to most speakers’ houses that will be most likely to occur as native roots. In English, we’ve got dens and kitchens, for instance, but most of the others are compounds: bedroom, bathroom, living room, etc. And then there are a number of rooms whose names we’ve borrowed, such as the foyer. You can draw quite a few conclusions about a culture’s history in this manner, such as the fact that most Anglo-Saxons didn’t have a foyer, but some wealthy Frenchmen later on must have.

Another question is what to call the “ideal” room itself. Because English has a couple of different terms for that. We’ve got room, obviously, as in dining room, but fantasy or historical literature might instead speak of the more archaic dining hall. And that’s okay. Halls are rooms, too. There’s a different connotation, and connotations are always nice to see. They’re where conlangs can distinguish themselves.

What’s inside

What’s inside those rooms is usually much more interesting than the rooms themselves. Looking around my own bedroom (where I write), I see quite a bit of furniture. There’s the bed, of course, because what’s a bedroom without a bed? And I’ve got my desk, a bookshelf, my chair, and a few odds and ends. Other rooms in the house will have their own larger fixtures—furniture and appliances—almost always tied to the room’s function. American bathrooms will have toilets and sinks, while kitchens will have counters and cabinets.

Beyond the major functions of a room, the space will contain many other things. Some of these are tools, like all those screwdrivers we can never find when we need them. Others are strictly for entertainment, such as TVs or toys. We could also throw in toiletries and clothes and other such things, but we’ll save all that for other posts. For this one, we should focus on those things that make our house a home.

Changing things up

Home items can display a remarkable amount of irregularity. That’s almost all cultural baggage, as the things we find in our homes change as we interact with other peoples. Everything in the room around you has a history, and so does every word you would use to describe those things. Household items are a great place to toss in loanwords, odd and idiosyncratic compounds, sketchy neologisms, and whatever else you can think of. It’s not uncommon today to have a television (pseudo-classical Greek) sitting a few feet from your coffee table (compound derived from Turkish and Old French), which is right in front of your couch (Old French again), where you’ll curl up under your blanket (more Old French, but they borrowed this one from Germanic). Even the most xenophobic American can travel linguistically around the world from the comfort of his home.

Coming up

So we’re in 2017, and the series continues. Part 23 will come next month, after the usual Isian and Ardari posts. It will cover food and drink, topics that are subtly different from the “flora and fauna” subjects we saw not too long ago. Until then, keep on creating!

Magic and tech: clothing and fashion

We humans are peculiar in a great many regards, but one of those is our clothing. Call it a cultural imperative, but we all wear clothes. Those few of us that don’t, such as nudists or those few indigenous peoples who still haven’t adopted at least a loincloth, are seen as odd by the rest of our species. (The story of Genesis is at pains to point out that, once they received the higher wisdom of the tree, Adam and Eve very specifically became “ashamed” of their nakedness.) But the big picture tells a different story: as life on this planet goes, we are the weird ones. Only humans feel the need to cover some or most of their bodies in some other substance most of the time.

This may be from an evolutionary quirk, as humans are a rarity in another way. How many other animals choose to leave their evolved habitat? Very few. That’s not just how evolution works, but why. Species adapt to their environments, and there’s a kind of “inertia” that keeps them there. It’s probably because adapting is hard, and where’s the reproductive advantage in doing it all over again?

Putting something on

The first and most obvious choices for human clothing, looking back to prehistoric times, were likely animal skins. Despite the misguided crusades of PETA and others, that’s still an attractive option today. How many of you own a leather jacket, or a fur coat, or something of that sort? Skins are a good choice for protecting us from the elements (one of the original and most important uses for clothing), because, hey, it works for the animals they belong to.

Any culture can make clothing out of animals. It’s not that hard to do, all things considered. And there’s a lot of technological progress that can be made there. Tanning, the process of transforming raw hides into leather, may have been one of the defining developments of the Neolithic, alongside agriculture and villages, if only because it’s one of our oldest examples of a “manufacturing” process.

A few other materials coming from animals see use for clothing. Wool is the big one, but the hair of a few other mammals can also work. Biblical-style sackcloth, for instance, used animal hair, as did medieval hairshirts, strangely enough. Outside of the mammals, we also find silk, which comes from the cocoon of the silkworm. Like hair, silk is a fiber, and we can spin fibers into threads, then weave threads into cloth. Simple as that.

But the best fibers, in terms of cost, ease of use, and animal ethics, come in the form of plant fibers. And it’s those that formed the basis for most day-to-day clothing in the Western world until modern times. As a matter of fact, even our synthetic world of polyester and nylon and the like still holds ample evidence of plant use. I’m wearing an awful lot of cotton right now, for example, and linen (from flax) hasn’t gone away after all these centuries.

Dressing up

Intimately related to clothing is the idea of fashion. It’s all well and good to say that humans cover themselves with animal or plant parts, but how they do so is one of the hallmarks of a culture. What parts do we cover? (That’s a more nuanced question than you might think; in America, it’s different for men and women and children.) What sorts of clothes are acceptable? What kinds of styling do we use, and when?

A lot of questions like this are highly specific to a culture, and it’s hard to draw many general conclusions. Most every culture agrees that the pelvic region should be covered, for instance—though even that is not universal. And it’s rare to find a place that doesn’t have a fashion “hierarchy”, where certain people are expected to wear “better” clothes at certain times. Think of a suit, a tuxedo, or our “Sunday best”, then compare that to what we might wear at the beach, or just around the house.

One of the more interesting—and more visible—aspects of fashion is color. At some point long ago, our ancestors discovered they could dye those materials they used for their clothing. Today, we take that for granted, but it wasn’t always thus. Purple is seen as a royal color in the West because one shade of purple (Tyrian purple) was once worn exclusively by royalty. And why did they choose that particular purple? Because it was just about the most expensive kind of dye you could find: literally worth its weight in silver.

Throughout the ages, that becomes the refrain of high fashion. And high fashion eventually trickles down to low fashion, but low fashion has made its own developments in the meantime. Some of those developments are modern, such as the boxer briefs I’m wearing as I write this. Others have a much longer history, like sandals. Sometimes, the history is longer than you’d expect; art from over 2,000 years ago shows women wearing something that looks an awful lot like a bikini.

Fashionable magic

Whatever form it takes, fashion is an integral part of a culture, and it’s also an important part of any study of clothing. Thus, as we turn to our magical realm, we’ll treat the two of them as inseparable.

First, though, we need to make the clothes. In olden days, that was a laborious, time-consuming task. It’s not a stretch to say that the whole Industrial Revolution came about as a way to simplify that task. Spinning fibers into threads took so much time that some researchers have concluded that it was effectively a constant job for medieval-era women. They’d do it while they weren’t doing anything else, and sometimes when they were. Weaving was likewise hard work. Dyers might have been respected, but only if you weren’t downwind of them. And forget about all those things we take for granted, like zippers or standard sizes.

Industry changed all that, and so can magic. We’ve already seen how magic, within the boundaries we have set, can improve the manufacturing capabilities of our realm. Applying that to clothes-making will likely be one of the first things the mages do. It’s a no-brainer. In our world, it was one of the first true cases of factory automation. That’s not going to be any different if it’s magic powering the factories. (Putting all those women out of work will have…interesting consequences.)

On the other hand, dyeing doesn’t get much of a boost from magic. It’ll benefit from the advances in chemistry made possible by magic itself and the general inquisitiveness that magic will bring, but there are fewer direct applications. Processing the materials for dyes might be automated, though, in much the same way as spinning thread. The same goes for extracting the plant fibers for clothes in the first place; every American student has heard of Eli Whitney and the cotton gin.

One thing is for certain: magic will make clothes cheaper across the board. When clothes cost less, people will have more of them. Even the poorest folks will be able to afford richly dyed fabrics instead of plain whites, browns, and grays. That’s the point when fashion becomes “mainstream”. Once a sufficient percentage of the population has access to finery, styles can develop. Fashion transforms from a noble quirk to a cultural phenomenon. What form it will take is nearly impossible to predict. And it’s a moving target, even in older times. How many people do you know in 2017 wearing bell-bottoms or tie-dyed shirts? How many have you seen in corsets and pantaloons outside of reenactments?

To end this post, let’s look at one very intriguing possibility that sprang from the development of clothes: computers. I know that sounds crazy, but bear with me. Weaving complex fabric patterns on a loom is difficult. It’s hard to make a machine that can do that, and harder still to develop one that can change its patterns. Joseph Marie Jacquard did just that about 200 years ago. He created a mechanized loom that could change its weave based on a pattern of holes punched in a series of “input” cards. Punched cards. Herman Hollerith took them for his census-counting machine at the end of the 19th century. Sixty or so years later, IBM used them to store the data for their first computers.

Now, the “programming language” of Jacquard looms isn’t Turing-complete, and nobody would claim that someone using the loom was truly programming a computer, but the seed of the idea is there. In fact, almost everything an early computer would need can be done with the magic we’ve seen in this series, some six centuries before it “should” exist. That doesn’t mean our magical realm has computers, or will get them anytime soon, but it’s definitely one of those strange paths you might want to look down. In this new year, I’ll try and find more of them for us to explore.

2017: Resolutions for the new year

So a new year has begun. (By the time you read this, anyway. As I write, December is only hours old.) As you may have read the other day, I’m scaling back my quantity of posts here to make room in my “busy” schedule for more fiction. Assuming all goes well—it never does—I have quite a bit prepared for 2017, and more in the works. So let’s take a look, shall we?

New novel: Nocturne

This is the big one. Nocturne was my November writing project for 2016, and the month was a resounding success. Now, it’s time to see if the book itself will be. It’s a full-length novel, only the third one of those I’ve ever written. I like the characters, love the magic system, and find myself very drawn to the political interplay the story brings. I’ll admit, I’m biased. Hopefully, I won’t be the only one to like it.

Nocturne is also the first novel I’ll be putting through my new “pipeline”. The first finished draft will come out soon for Patreon supporters ($10/month). Then, after I’ve edited the thing into something coherent, I’ll put it out for the $3/month “serious readers”. Finally, once I’m confident of a release, it’ll go to the “casual” readers willing to put up a dollar a month, and also to the Kindle Store. I’m thinking $3.99 for the price there, but we’ll see.

The timeframe for Nocturne is pretty strict. I’ve already decided the absolute latest I can release it is August 21. That’s because the great solar eclipse of 2017 occurs then, and a solar eclipse is the defining moment in the life of the novel’s primary protagonist. That will be for the “official” release through KDP, but Patreon supporters will get it earlier. Right now, I’ve penciled in January 16 for the draft, April 21 for the supporters’ advance copy, and maybe somewhere in June or July for the final release. If that seems like a tight schedule, well, it is. On the plus side, I’m an indie. I don’t have the luxury of worrying about multiple back-and-forth rounds of editing, finding a slot at the press, working with cover artists, or setting up a publicity tour. So I can have a turnaround on the order of a few months.

Otherworld novellas

The Otherworld series is probably my favorite. It’s my worldbuilding playground, my sandbox for creating a setting, a language, a culture, etc. Oh, and the story’s pretty good, too. (Again, I’m biased.) I’ll be dribbling out the rest of the drafts for the series over the course of the next few months. Only once those are all out will I start work on reader releases, and I’m not sure if these will ever go on KDP. Maybe once I start Season 2.

Each of these runs about 50-60K in word count, and here’s my tentative schedule for the draft posts:

  1. Out of the Past — November 2, 2016
  2. The City and the Hill — January 6, 2017
  3. A Matter Settled — February 10, 2017
  4. Written in Black and White — March 24, 2017
  5. The Bonds Between Us — May 5, 2017
  6. Situational Awareness — June 9, 2017
  7. A Peace Shattered — July 21, 2017
  8. Long Road’s End — September 1, 2017

I’m also planning a series of Otherworld shorts, currently using the working title A Bridge Between Worlds. These will follow on from “Long Road’s End”, covering the intervening time before Otherworld #9, which hasn’t even entered the planning stages yet.

Linear short stories

The first three short stories in the Linear Anthology, “Either Side of Night”, “The Last Captain”, and “Forged in the Fires”, are already out on Patreon. The second half of the cycle will follow soon. I don’t actually have titles for these yet—as I write this on December 1—but they don’t take that long to write, so they shouldn’t be too hard. The dates I’m looking at for release are January 27 for Part 4, February 24 for Part 5, and April 7 for Part 6. And that’s it. I’m not planning on continuing the story past that at the moment, though I might come back to it down the road.

As for a few other details on this series, I’m still deciding. My original idea had been to release them separately on Patreon, then do a big collection (hence the name Linear Anthology) for KDP. Remember that Amazon has a cutoff for its 70% royalties: 99¢ books only get to collect 35%. I don’t feel comfortable charging three bucks for any individual story of this size, so I’d have to either combine them or settle for the lower royalties. Of course, if the Patreon thing works out, then less royalties won’t matter as much, and the cheaper release on the Kindle Store might drive more people to Patreon. It’s a lot to think about, and I don’t have the answer yet.

Other plans

If you’ve paid attention, you’ll see that I have at least three short stories planned for this year. Add in A Bridge Between Worlds, which will contain five more shorts, and that’s eight. And that’s only the beginning of what I want to do in 2017.

Let’s assume I’ve finished Nocturne by this time. As I write, I’m about 75% done with the first draft. Editing is a separate process, so we’ll ignore it for the time being. On top of those eight short stories, I’ll be doing another original novel in November, and I want to finish Lair of the Wizards, one I’ve been working on for a year and a half. The Otherworld “Season 2” collection would be a total of 8 novellas, probably adding up to half a million words. That might not be feasible, so I won’t put them all on the list. Maybe one or two. And then there’s a short story I plan on writing late in the year for all my loyal supporters…assuming I have any by that time.

So that’s the plan so far: 9 short stories, 2 novellas, and a novel and a half. All told, using some generous word counts, I’d call that about 400,000 words written. Throw in about 80-100 posts here on Prose Poetry Code, and you’re talking 500,000. It’s ambitious by any standard, but I have decided that it’s better to fail at unrealistic goals than to succeed at easy ones. Go big or go home, as they say, and I’m going big in 2017. I hope you’ll be along for the ride.