Terra Incognito and World Building 101

Wow!Terra Incognito

Terra Incognito is like the gift that keeps on giving. Because I wrote the book, Black Gate gave me the opportunity to keep doing world-building articles for them.

I guess I did OK with my first one.

Apparently I had the #1 viewed blog post at Black Gate for the month of October. Thank you everyone who stopped by to check it out.

And now, time to buckle down on the next two posts I’m planning on doing there.


My publisher just sent me the link showing Terra Incognito on the Waterstone’s web site. Kind of cool seeing the book available for my horde of British fans (all two of you).

Still, this begs the question – does this mean I’m now an internationally published author? *silly grin*


Terra Incognito – The Darkside Codex (part two)

In the first part of this article, I was talking about how I was approached to create a series bible that would be used my multiple authors to create The Darkside Codex, Musa Publishing’s shared world.  I’ve discussed where the germ of the idea came from and also where I got the ideas for the city of Southwatch. But that’s only the first part. I used all the various techniques I discuss in my new book, Terra Incognito: Building the Worlds of Your Imagination, to flesh out the city once I had built its basic structure. So, let’s return to that idea and see how Southwatch grew from just a few buildings on a small island into something people could incorporate into their stories—


Continuing on, I started identifying people who were needed in the town. I decided Southwatch was a city-state run by a baron. However, he handles the major issues with the Empire that controls Southwatch. There is a Lord Mayor and a city council running the day-to-day operations and then each city district has its own council also. However, beyond that, I began developing personalities any of the writers could use. Some of them are simply names and positions like the Lord Mayor’s secretary, the bartender at a specific bar, two second-story men, etc. Just something a writer could use as a hook for a story or as a background character their protagonist could meet in passing.

Then I started thinking of specific people to populate Southwatch. Here’s where I started adding in the mad scientists, the baron’s secret police, sky pirates, a couple of industrial spies, the military leaders who were stationed by the Empire to protect Southwatch and the southern coast; all of these had more details so they could be potential protagonists or even antagonists for the writers. For my good friend and fellow author, Myke Cole, I created the Imperial Coast Guard and stationed one of the Coast Guard Squadrons in Southwatch.

Another area I provided a bare bone sketch was in the Southwatch Underworld. I came up with the names and areas of interest for several of Southwatch’s seediest characters. However, I left it at that. I am hoping some of the writers will explore these characters. Now if I was writing about one or all of them, it would be safe to say, I wouldn’t want to be on any of their bad sides. I suspect if you dig deep into their characters, you’re not going to like what you see. However, another author may decide one of them is really not a bad person, but they’re as much a victim of circumstances as the people they terrorize. Another person might decide even I wasn’t depraved enough with their story. That’s why I left some of the characters wide open. I want the writers to bring the story each character has hidden away to life.


Concept Sketch of Southwatch

While most steampunk is set in a variation of Victorian or Edwardian England, we decided this would not be just an alternate Earth but a new world with its own history and religions. We already had the city map, but if this was a new world, I was going to need to start with the macro and work toward the micro. So, first we created the world of Thalia by creating the continents and the oceans. From that, I was able to identify which continent held Southwatch, and I did a larger version of this map, identifying the current Empire of Dalriada and its neighboring lands. Then, we did an expanded map of the Empire of Dalriada and identified the various duchies, kingdoms, and imperial city-states allied with Southwatch.

I decided since Southwatch was an independent city-state inside an empire, the Empire of Dalriada would be similar to the Holy Roman Empire and Southwatch would be one of the imperial electors. Given its industrial power and being a major port city, it allowed Southwatch to have quite a bit of influence within the empire without controlling large tracts of land. This would help the authors concentrate on the city, but give them the ability to include imperial intrigue, foreign spies, or even do a story involving traveling around the globe if they wanted to investigate the entire world.

If you’re going to have a world, it can’t just exist in a vacuum. So, I wrote the history of the lands around Southwatch and wove the history of the city into the over-all history. This helped identify the old lines of nobility as well as introducing events reflected in ancient documents that might be discovered in the bowels of the city or even a potential pretender for the imperial throne who might be living in Southwatch completely unaware of their noble bloodline. Would the current nobles welcome him into their midst or would they dispatch forces to ensure the permanent extinction of the threat?

In conjunction with my work, Celina helped design the major religions in the Empire. She came up with the major religion as well as three minor cults. By designing the religions, she then created the holidays in Southwatch as well as deigning the calendar. It’s an unusual one: twelve months with thirty days per month (five weeks of six days each) and then a short five-day month which is dedicated to the major holy days.

Along with developing the religions, she also designed the most commonly seen fashions in Southwatch. After all, what is the local noble supposed to wear when out and about on the town? What are the latest fashions in filter masks for slumming below the cloud? After all, once can’t be expected to wear just any old filter mask.

Angel of Steel_1_wings

Seriously, Celina put a great effort in developing and refining what is standard wear in Southwatch. She helped design not only the clothing for the aristocrats, but helped design the standard uniforms for the police and Sky Rangers as well as identifying the styles of clothing worn by everyday people both at work and at play. Even though a lot of steampunk focuses on the gentleman adventurer or the lady daredevil, even they will be encountering people of all ages and social classes. By determining what the fashions of Southwatch (and by extension, the Empire and beyond), this helps ensure continuity in the various stories to come.

The advantage of having this be a near-Earth-but-not-quite is we can introduce almost anything into the story and make it work. Glass as strong as steel? A rare element that assists in personal flight devices? Androids possessing human souls? Is it magic? Is it super-science? Is it a combination of both? Or is it Clarke’s Law (“Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic”) in action?

Well, the fae might have something to say about that.

The fae?

Oh, hadn’t I mentioned them yet? Yes, they are the ones who decided to make Southwatch pay for all the pollution they’d been pumping into the sky for hundreds of years. They maintain the winds keeping the cloud perfectly centered above the city. They figure the humans will figure it out eventually. As I point out in the series bible, the fae may be playful or they may be malevolent, but they always have their own reasons for doing things. Always.

Southwatch has been built and destroyed at least three times in its history. There are things that lurk within the bowels of the city and on the outskirts and within the cloud. Some might call them the undead. Some might call them shadows of the past. Some might claim they’re creatures from a different reality summoned by a mad genius and then released into the world for an unfathomable purpose. All of them could be right. However, there are no friendly undead. They do not fall in love with humans. Humans are cattle to be used and discarded. Humans can be agents to accomplish tasks the undead cannot do during daylight. Humans can be toys (sexual or other), but they are not love interests. Remember, some of what we would call undead are not former humans. They think very differently and see humans very differently from the way humans see themselves. This could be fertile ground for Steampunk Horror, especially if the otherworldliness is played up.

In a nutshell, these are the steps I went through to build the city of Southwatch, which was going to be the crown jewel for what I called The Darkside Chronicles. Unfortunately, Musa Publishing closed its doors in March 2015. Still it was a great project to be involved in and it was great seeing how all the different things I talk about in Terra Incognito came together for this project.  And this might not necessarily be the final end of Southwatch, but that will have to wait for another telling.

Another day, another story en route

Before we post part two to the Darkside Codex story, I have some general writing news.

Sunday was the first blog post I’ve published at Black Gate. It’s supplemental information for my book, Terra Incognito, about designing a fantasy or historical village for writers or gamers. After talking to my publisher, StarWarp Concepts, they’d like me to collect up these new world-building posts for a Terra Incognito II. I’m certainly not going to argue with that.

Be sure to check out the blog post and post a comment there or here, especially if there are any subjects you’d like to see me cover.

Also, I have finished the first draft of Paladin, at 7,000 words into The Sleeping Hero, the novel to continue the adventures from For a Few Gold Pieces More.  I also submitted “Extractor”  for an anthology with a new publisher for me. Keep your fingers crossed. I’d really, really like to get this one. *grin*

Also, I’ve seen the first draft of my Kickstarter video and Joshua Orozco at Atomic Canary Studios did a kick-ass job with it. Just waiting for him to add the music and smooth out a few rough spots and we’re hopefully going to be ready to rock and roll with this.

I’ll probably be reaching out to a number of people in the very near future re: my Kickstarter. While I’m not asking anyone specifically to contribute to it, (although I won’t turn you down if you decide to support me), but I am going to be asking many of you to help up the volume on this. Some of you are much, MUCH, more tied in via social media and just reader-bases already, so if you could just direct a few more eyes to the Kickstarter than I’ll be able to generate on my own, you’ll have my undying gratitude.

(Yeah, I know undying gratitude and $4.00 might by a Starbucks coffee, but hey, it’s something!)

Terra Incognito – The Darkside Codex (part one)

In my writing guide Terra Incognito: A Guide to Building the Worlds of Your Imagination (now on sale from StarWarp Concepts), I take readers through the process of constructing a fantasy world from a blank piece of paper. We build and populate the lands, determine the various ethnicities, divide them into countries and tribes, and determine their forms of government, religions, and monetary systems. We also create the cosmology of the world and its surrounding neighbors, and demonstrate how it influences the creation of the calendar in use on the island continent of Aviones.

Many of you may wonder how practical this advice is. Well, to give you a real-world example, let me tell you about the process I went through for Musa Publishing.

In June 2012, Celina Summers, the editor of Penumbra—the magazine in which the articles that comprise the majority of Terra Incognito first appeared—approached me with the concept of creating a shared steampunk-genre world that could be the basis for a new line of novels and novellas. At first, it seemed a little overwhelming—after all, it’s one thing to develop a world for my own personal vision, but it’s another to create a world that anyone could use to develop a story. After taking a few deep breaths, I sat down and began brainstorming some directions in which I could go.

While I’m no expert on steampunk, I know several people who are, and based on their feedback, I realized there are no absolute rules for the genre. It’s incredibly flexible, which is where I see the “punk” part coming from, thumbing its nose at the idea there’s any one way to do it. So, when I accepted the challenge, I decided to develop a wide-open concept. Yes, there would be some staples from steampunk—steam-powered machines, airships, strange science, and intrigue—but I didn’t want to tie this new series into just science fiction or just fantasy. I wanted to create something that could be Urban Steampunk, Steampunk Noir, Steampunk Horror, or even Steampunk Romance. Basically, if there’s a genre out there, I wanted an author to feel comfortable creating a story set in my new world. Heck, if someone wanted to do Steampunk Literary, I couldn’t wait to see it. But first I had to create the framework for all these potential stories.


The inspiration for Southwatch and the Angels of Steel – Artwork by Alan Gutierrez

I remembered a cover I had seen when I attended the convention Archon 30, back in 2006. Alan Gutierrez’s wraparound cover had a woman with steel wings and mechanical arms standing there in a modified kimono on the front and a scene of airships mounting cannons flying over a landscape launching small airplanes from underneath. So, using the cover as inspiration, I knew I wanted to use winged people. Then looking at the airships, I had another inspiration. Being a longtime Trekkie, I was reminded of an original series episode called “The Cloud Minders,” in which the wealthy lived in floating cities while the commoners worked in horrible conditions on the planet’s surface.

Suddenly, I had my idea for the storyline.

What if there was a city where the more powerful, more influential or wealthier you were, the higher up in the city you lived? Thus the city of Southwatch was born. I took two sheets of paper and began doodling. On one page, I built a city with a huge steam plant in the center of the town, dividing it up into various sections. On the other page, I began working on an elevation map, deciding which region was the tallest and which were the lowest. As I played with this idea, I came up with a second one—the Dark Cloud.

Playing the “what if” game of brainstorming, I decided Southwatch was a major industrial city with a pollution problem. However, in Southwatch, the pollution had been affected by strange winds. The cloud of pollution grew out to the city limits and stopped, swirling slowly over the town in a huge fifty-foot mass. So, literally, there was a separation between the middle and lower classes and the (literal) upper class.

The city has a huge fleet of airships stationed above it, moored to the tallest portions of the town. While discussing this idea with Celina, we decided there were two different types of airships hovering above the town. The outermost ring of ships consisted of the standard military style airships, which I decided were manned by the Sky Rangers, the city’s main defenders. The interior ships are made out of a Southwatch unique material called “bessum.” This is a special mixture of glass with the tensile strength of steel. It allows for the building of beautiful airships large enough for “noble” housing. Also, it creates a spectacular visual with a flock of stained-glass airships hovering high above a dark cloud below.

Another thought that came to me while I was envisioning a towering city of skyscrapers. I remember going to the old Chicago Con back at the Rosemont Center. The convention was connected to the four major hotels by these walkways above the highways. They were commonly referred to as the habitrails, since they were completely enclosed to protected conventioneers from the weather. So, since we’re talking about huge skyscrapers hundreds of floors high, no one is going to want to have to go down to the ground floor walk to the next building and then take a steam-powered elevator back up. So now imagine standing on the ground and looking up to see a spider work of enclosed and open walkways between buildings extending up toward a dark, slowly swirling cloud over your head, allowing workers, deliverymen, messengers, and families to travel between buildings, while on the street around you, steam and electric powered cars jockey with bicyclists and a strange contraption that appears to be half-wagon and half horse clops down the street. Under your feet, you can feel the throbbing of the factories and the heavy people-movers taking those who live down in the underground slums from their homes to the steel mills and the factories that build the items that keep Southwatch running.

Oh, did I mention the mechanicals? Yes, along with the mechanical horses that were seen on the street, there are mechanical workers in Southwatch. Designed by the finest scientists (mad or otherwise), there are four different types. There are the winders—simple mechanical devices custom built for their specific jobs and, true to their names, require winding every so often by their human minders. Slightly more advanced than the winders were the myrmidons, generally humanoid in shape, primarily designed to provide military and police support for the humans in Southwatch. Even more advanced are the cybernauts, who serve as personal servants in jobs where the winders or myrmidons would make regular humans nervous. A fourth type of mechanical does not exist officially, but some people claim there are self-aware mechanicals called androids. Most people say androids are a figment of a vivid imagination, but there are those who speak of them in hushed tones and swear they exist. What will the writers who visit Southwatch decide? To be quite honest, there could be one story that swears they do exist and one that says they’re nothing but an urban legend and they both could be right. After all, not ever character in Southwatch is going to have the same understanding of the city or the same point of reference. That’s going to be the great part about doing a shared universe.

And speaking of urban legends, I created seven of them. However, all I did was come up with the name. Who is the Lady in White? Does the White Cliffs Strangler really exist? Are there more than seven urban legends in Southwatch? I certainly hope so for a city that’s been around for over a thousand years. However, that’s left to the writer’s imagination. The writers who want to visit Southwatch can certainly create their own or flesh out the ones I introduce. This was a decision I made to give our authors as much latitude as possible to create their own stories. It was a fine line to walk. I wanted to provide enough details for writers to get a good feel for Southwatch but not put so much detail into it so that the writers can put their own personal spin on this world.

 (Of course I have my own opinions on what is what in Southwatch—it is my baby, after all—but that’s the joy of a shared world. I fully expect the writers to come up with ideas I never even considered and plots that will make me smack myself in the forehead, saying, “Why didn’t I think of that!” I’m really looking forward to that happening one day.)

All of this was a good start, but there’s more to tell in Part Two . . .

Post-convention thoughts and a writing day

Home from Rocket City Lit Fest. Actually got home Monday evening, but all I did was grab dinner, visit with some friends, and collapsed into bed.

I’ll have a more complete wrap-up soon, but, the BLUF* is “had a great time, met a lot of cool authors, the volunteers were fantastic, the con committee was outstanding, and the crowd was small but enthusiastic (typical for a first year show).

Lesson learned: Do not schedule a book launch against Alabama football. My launch and opening kickoff were both at 6pm. Guess which one won? (Hint, the one that features multiple National Championships.)

Wednesday was another good day on the writing front. Got a blog post that’s related to Terra Incognito off to review site, finished the first draft of a short story that’s due at the end of the month and wrote another 2800 words on “Paladin”, my story for Origins Game Fair.

Of course, if you’re playing along at home, that means I’m at 5200 words for a 5000 word story and I still have one scene left to write. However, as we say in the biz, that’s what editing’s for. Push on until you hit “the end” and THEN go back and trim that puppy down to size. I already see where I need to move a few scenes around to make the story flow better, but until I finish the first draft, I’m not going to go back and “edit”.

Still, I’m very pleased with the way Paladin is going.


*For the non-military reading this — BLUF = Bottom Line Up Front

Packing, and writing, and promoting . . . oh my!

Oh, and along with all the frantic last minute packing . . . note to self, try not to schedule a book launch and a convention at the same time again . . . I did actually do something useful.

I wrote 2800+ words on a new story for the Origins Game Fare anthology for next year. The theme is Robots and my story is tentatively titled “Paladin”.

I have to say, this is the most unlike me story I’ve ever written, but it draws heavily on an experience I had back in college. I usually don’t write something that draws from my own history this closely – but it just fit the theme of what I wanted to do with the story.


Just got the floor plan for Rocket City Lit Fest in Huntsville, AL. I’m going to be in Booth 410 (2nd top cluster from the left, on the center horizontal aisle).

We’ll be holding the official book debut party for Terra Incognito at 6pm Saturday at the convention (and a little room party later that evening) to celebrate the book release.

So, if you’re coming to Rocket City, be sure to stop by and say “Hi”.

Copy of 2015 RCLF table layout V2

Interview with Tracy Hickman (excerpt)

I was incredibly fortunate to get to interview Tracy Hickman for Terra Incognito. He was gracious with his time and his advice for new authors. Our Skype interview went over two hours and we probably could have kept going, but what was initially going to be one column wound up sprawling over into two issues.  When we put Terra together as a book, unfortunately, we simply couldn’t fit all of his interview into it, so we decided to take a snippet of the interview and save it for the readers of this blog.

So, without further ado:  Tracy Hickman

Tracy Hickman with newest book


RW: You have a new book coming out called Wayne of Gotham. Is this your first time doing work with DC Comics? (Note: Wayne of Gotham was released on June 26, 2012, a few weeks after this interview was conducted.)

TH: Yes, this is my first foray into doing work with DC Comics.

RW: Two questions come to mind. One, can you give us a quick synopsis of the book? And two, since we’re talking about world building, Batman is a pretty iconic character. How much research did you have to do into Gotham City and the whole Batman mythos to be true to the character? Admittedly Batman has been through several reboots since the 1930s, but how do you stay true to the feel of Batman?

TH: Wayne of Gotham is a hugely exciting thing for me. Wayne of Gotham is a book about Batman, and Bruce Wayne coming to grips with the reality of his own father. We’re reopening and reinvestigating the deaths of his parents. Mostly, when we think of Thomas Wayne, we think of him being dead. We think of how he died. But we really haven’t examined who he was and what he did in his life. I think this is a journey all men have to take to come to grips with the reality of their father. Especially in the case of Bruce Wayne, where his father was such an enormous catalyst for his life. I felt it was important for us to take a look at who Thomas Wayne was and more importantly, that Bruce Wayne take a look at who his father was, aside from the marbled figure who’s up on the pedestal.

The story actually opens with his grandfather Patrick Wayne, who’s drunk, dragging Thomas into the caverns underneath Wayne Manor with a shotgun and forcing him to kill bats. We see that Patrick was an abusive and violent father to Thomas and bullied his son—trying to make a man out of him. That is the start of this journey for us.

The story takes place in two periods. In the modern day, Batman is confronted with a series of crimes in the city that mirror events from the late 1950s involving his father. Then we jump back in time and visit Gotham in the late 1950s and we see Thomas and what made him tick, how he met Martha Kane and how Thomas may have been the foundation of many of Bruce problems and many of the problems that confront Gotham City in the time of the Batman. It’s a thrilling journey and one I’m just so excited to tell.

Plus, I got to write characters I’ve always wanted to write. I got to write some obscure characters, but I also got a chance to write iconic characters. I loved writing Harley Quinn. Harley was a delight to write and yes, the Joker was a thrill. But all these characters are caught up in the investigation into Thomas Wayne and why he really died. That’s basically the story we’re telling in Wayne of Gotham.

RW: I think this one is definitely going to have to go on my “to buy” list.

TH: I cannot recommend this book enough. This is a joy to read. I have a copy of it here with me—one copy of it. I wish I could share it.

RW: It’s obvious to do the old Gotham versus the new Gotham; a lot of research had to go on. Did you get a chance to go through some of the Golden- and Silver-Age Batman material to help with your research?

TH: DC sent me a copy of The Essential Batman Encyclopedia, which is now so used, the spine is broken. I’m going to have to go take it in to have it rebound. When approaching an iconic character like Batman, you walk a really fine line. My first reaction after we proposed this story and they accepted it was, “Oh man, I get to write Batman.” And then the second reaction was, “What have I done? I have to write Batman!” Because everyone has an idea of who Batman is.

RW: And everyone loves to tell you about it if it’s not quite right in their eyes.

TH: It’s going to be an interesting [San Diego] Comic Con, this year to see how the fans react to what I’ve done.(Laughter) [DC] actually said to me, early on, “you can do anything you want to with Batman. If you want to redesign the suit, redesign the suit. If you want to redesign the Batmobile, redesign the Batmobile. You want to put Batman in a leather jacket, let’s do that.”

Now, my first thoughts were, “Cool, I can redesign the suit and the Batmobile.” The second thought I had immediately after that was, “Don’t! Don’t do it.”

RW: I think you made a wise choice.

TH: You gotta have the cape. You gotta have the cowl. He’s Batman. The Batsuit has to be the Batsuit. Batman has to be Batman. It has to be iconic. So, what I had to do then was provide something original, something that’s new, but I have to do it in such a way it feels like Batman or what we already know he is. Plus, it has to pay homage to every previous iteration. He has to be a part of what everyone believes Batman to be. So, it was a very difficult line to walk because you need to do something new and interesting, but at the same time, it has to be familiar. It has to ring true organically as Batman.

So, I had to do a tremendous amount of research on the history of Batman. I had to go through the multiverses and the multiple iterations of the Batman down through the years. Everything from who was Batman in the 1930s to who Batman is today. For example, Vicky Vale is so many different people, depending on which series you’re dealing with. Which Robin are we talking about? So, it was really important, to me. I need to be able to touch on the iconic moments that are Batman and to weave all these pieces into a single cloth to pay homage and honor the vision of everyone who’d come before me. That was the biggest challenge I had in this book—to produce something that rang true to what everyone wanted Batman to be.

 RW: The very first time I ever did media tie-in work, the basic advice I got was you can do whatever you want as long as you put all the toys back on the shelf where you got them from. In other words, I could have the character do X, they could do Y, but in the end, I couldn’t change the fundamentals.

TH: I’m really excited then, because in this book we do make some fundamental changes here. But I think they’re very satisfying in terms of defining who the character is. My hope is when people read the book is they’ll say, “Yeah, that makes sense.” I’m really anxious to get some people out there reading it so I can get some feedback and see what people think of my take on the Batman.


To read the rest of my interview with Tracy, which includes his insights on world building, you’ll have to purchase a copy of Terra Incognito: A Guide to Building the Worlds of Your Imagination, available from StarWarp Concepts.

Terra Incognito

Exploring the worlds of your imagination

And we’re off and running.

Terra Incognito


Terra Incognito should be live on the major sites in the next day or so – all depends on how fast the retailers get around to posting it to their sites. We’re certainly hoping it’ll be fully loaded everywhere by the end of the week at the latest.

The .epub is being obnoxious, but it’s been obnoxious the whole time we’ve been trying to get this thing put together. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear it was haunted. Then again, we are coming up on Halloween and my publisher is best known for doing dark fantasy and horror. Perhaps a haunted e-book is quite appropriate.

And then today I came home to find this:

Drive Thru Books

Yep, that’s Terra Incognito at #1 on the Hottest Titles at DriveThruFiction.com.

I think this is a pretty good sign that there’s a market for works on world building.

Doing everything but writing these days

Terra Incognito is at the printers. The E-books are waiting to be submitted to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, iBooks, Driver-Thru Comics, and any other place we can get them into.

All I really need now is information about how to submit them for gaming catalogs. Hey, it’s a book about world-building – there’s a ton of game masters who might want to build their own world rather than using a pre-packaged world. Terra Incognito is definitely a gaming supplement. Just need to figure out the best way to get it in front of a bunch of game store owners.

The Kickstarter for my short story collection, “For a Few Gold Pieces More” is coming together. Meeting with a videographer this weekend to discuss the video for the page, finalizing the rewards, and I’ve started building the page in Kickstarter as well as going over all the information I can find about successful campaigns.

If this fails, it’s not going to fail due to lack of preparation. *grin*

Tomorrow is going to be a writing night, no matter what though. I’m behind on a couple of projects because of all this publishing stuff. Time to get back to what I want to do, not what I have to do.