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Why Build a World, When You Can Steal One?

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No, this is not a post about fan fiction or making a living as a copyright thief. It’s really more of a “write what you know” post or what you can research post.

I’ve had two series that required some decent world building. The first, my Unbound series for Harlequin Nocturne, started with the idea that I wanted a hellhound hero.

That was it. That was all I had.

I knew that he would be strong and sexy and alpha (my heroes tend to the alpha). I also knew I wanted the story set in a modern basically human world because I was targeting Nocturne and that is the type of book they were publishing.

So, I had a sexy alpha hellhound shape shifter in a modern human world and nothing much more.

But the world couldn’t be just like the world we know. It did have hellhounds in it after all. So I have some world building to do. The first question was how much and for who.

There are two basic set-ups for paranormal books. One, the paranormal characters are “out.” In others the reality of what these paranormal beings are is a closely guarded secret. Humans don’t even know creatures like these exist.

I went with secret. This meant the world humans saw and expected would be different from what my hero knew to be true.

This also made half of my world simple. It’s the world we all live in with the same rules of gravity, language, traditions, and problems finding a parking place at the mall.

But the second half? The secret/different half? It could be anything.

This is where I cheated (aka researched).

Hellhounds have been used in a number of mythologies from various times and cultures, but Norse mythology spoke to me.

Norse myth, if you are familiar with it, is quite complicated. There is a world structure, built around Yggdrassil, a world tree, and there are stories, lots of stories.

I pillaged them all.

I drew my own map, based on Yggdrassil. Then I added to it, putting in new places that fit the stories I was going to write. I also looked at the characters and creatures that had been used in actual myth and gave them my own twist.

Garm, a particular dog associated with Hel’s gate, became a race of wolf shape shifters. I gave the garm one set of characteristics (protective, think herd dog) and the hellhounds another (attack dog).

I used my knowledge of those types of dogs to guide what the different characters did and my research of Norse myth to give my world structure.

This gave me rules that were clear in my mind and that, since they were based on an ancient mythos, had a built in “trueness.”

It also gave me a plethora of unusual creatures to explore and reinvent.

I am, of course, not the only writer to do this. Tolkien drew on Norse myth too. In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, the world rests on the backs of four elephants that are standing on the back of a gigantic turtle. You find a similar set up in Hindu mythology.  And, while supposedly not something C.S. Lewis planned when originally writing The Chronicles of Narnia, the Narnia books use many Christian themes and concepts.

What other examples can you think of?

Ready to pillage? What myth or belief system could you use for the basis of your next world?

Lori Devoti is the multi-published author of romantic comedy, paranormal romance and urban fantasy. She also writes the Dusty Deals Mystery series under the pen name Rae Davies. Look for her workshops at Write by the Lake (DCS University of Wisconsin), at various conferences, and here at the How To Write Shop. For more information, visit her web site. Find her on Google +

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