Last month, I started talking about the Otherworld, one of my most developed and beloved story settings. Well, the second part of the series is out now on my Patreon, so I thought it’d be a good idea to write down a few more thoughts about it.
The world I know
As I said then, the Otherworld is an Earthlike planet. It’s compatible enough in climate, etc., that it could be terraformed by humans and turned into what is essentially an alternate world. The only true difference is that all that terraforming took place before America was colonized by Europeans. Before the Columbian Exchange.
Making that work required a lot of effort on my part. For the first time, I delved into such esoteric topics as anthropology, agriculture, materials science, and so on. Here, I was building a world almost from scratch, and the first thing I had to do was see what tools I had to work with. Those, as you might expect, were fewer in number than if I’d placed the setting on the other side of the Atlantic.
What I took out of all this is simple: the Americas have all the pieces needed for advanced civilization. It was only a quirk of history that prevented the New World from developing ironworking or the wheel. The Otherworld doesn’t have those quirks, and I justified that by placing the point of divergence far, far, into the past. It’s not a case of “oh, a bunch of Indians got sucked into a wormhole”. No, this setting presupposes an almost completely parallel development, one where even our most basic notions about the indigenous population of the Americas may be mistaken.
There are cultural similarities. Working through the lens of the characters I’ve chosen, these are sometimes magnified, and often compared with their Earthly cousins. Some of the natives of the Otherworld are plains nomads. Some built step pyramids like those in Mexico. Yet there are many more differences, and that is the focus of the series as a whole.
In a way, I’ve made the individual books of the Otherworld series somewhat formulaic. For the first season, there’s a definite repeating structure: 8 chapters, 7 points of view. One of those is repeated, and it’s a different one each time, usually whichever one has the most impact on the episode’s storyline. For the final installment, Long Road’s End (coming in December), I changed things up a bit. It’s still 8 chapters, but they’re no longer restricted to a single focus. Instead, the first six switch back and forth among those same characters, each one covering a day in the life of the Otherworld. Chapter 7 (Spoiler: that’s when they can come home) has 7 scenes: one for each point of view. And the finale, Chapter 8, is a kind of epilogue to the whole season, containing one scene each for the four non-POV members of the expedition, as well as a character who grew very close to them.
At times, this structure felt a bit constraining. I had a tough time coming up with reasons to focus on some of the characters who weren’t quite front and center. (This is especially true, in my opinion, in Episode V, The Bonds Between Us. I feel that it’s the weakest story by far.) Yet it was also liberating, in a way. By forcing myself to work in this fashion, I was able to naturally build the connections between differing parts of the story; setting up “B” plots and sidetracks was almost automatic.
For the interstitial stories, I went with a slightly different approach. They’re much shorter, for one, weighing in at only about 25-30K words instead of 50-60K. They’re all 5 chapters each, and all but one (the fourth, The Dark Continent) have a matched pair of protagonists. As these were mostly “get over” stories, I thought this more limited setup worked better.
Now that I’m writing Season 2, I’m moving things around again. With the addition of new characters, and the way the story is progressing, I’ve expanded each episode to 10 chapters, each slightly shorter than before. The rotation is a bit “looser”, as well, so some characters might not get a chapter in each episode, and there won’t always be a repeat. As they’re becoming mostly teamed and paired up, this shouldn’t be a problem; there will almost always be another POV character around to pick up the slack.
Heart of the matter
The overarching storyline of the Otherworld series is the world itself. It’s there, and its existence is the single most defining aspect of the story. We see it first by accident. Then, starting with Episode II, it becomes not only integral to the setting, but it’s a source of drama, action, conflict. It’s more than a backdrop, because of the simple fact that it’s so unknown.
But that doesn’t mean that everything is about exploring. Indeed, once the wayward characters come to terms with their situation, true exploration quickly fades into the background—for the time being. With that, the series slowly transitions into a kind of character drama, though I throw in the occasional action sequence for good measure.
Sometimes, I’m not entirely sure what I was thinking with these, but I’m happy with the result. Over the course of 8 episodes, every one of the 11 main characters shows growth, development. They come into their own, and they each follow their own trajectory through the main story. There’s love and loss, there’s good times and bad. They have their arguments, and they often feel lost, homesick. Maybe it’s the length of the series, but I’ve never come out of a work with as good a feel for the characters. Not my own, anyway.
And most of those characters, I hope, come across as real. That’s what I wanted from the Otherworld: verisimilitude, that feeling that this could be a real place, that these things could happen. The characters might be fictional, but I didn’t want them to feel fake. With the Otherworld, I think I succeeded far beyond anything else I’ve ever written.
The road goes on forever
You know, I think I’ll make this a regular thing, because there’s so much I want to say on this subject. So that’s what I’m going to do: every time there’s a new story posted in the Otherworld saga, I’ll post something like this up here. Call it decompression, a postmortem, or whatever have you.