7 Things to Think About When Writing the Future…or the Past

Nora Roberts is best known for her romance novels — all of which move through several genres. You’ve got historical, fantastical, modern, thriller, etc. (I could list and list and list…but you get the point.)

But she’s also the creator of the J.D. Robb in Death series. For those of you who may not be familiar with this series, I’ll give you a quick rundown: the main character, Eve Dallas, is a police lieutenant in 2058 New York. She works crazy murder cases. During one particularly gnarly investigation (in book one, Naked in Death), she meets and falls in love with billionaire Roarke. Through the course of the series they deal with murder, mayhem, and mystery while navigating and growing their own relationship.

Note that the series is set in New York in 2058.

Welcome to future, where cops and criminals alike use sealant to cover up their fingerprints — the cops to avoid contaminating a scene, the criminals to avoid getting caught. There are licensed “companions” (think Firefly companions), businesses can have offices off-world, and the digital world requires its own investigative department. Holodecks are real(ish). Plastic surgery is as much a part of the beauty routine as a haircut. AutoChefs make your food.

Neat, right?

But, if you’re planning on writing something in the future, in order for the reader to buy into your world, you have to make the future somehow seem plausible. Nothing in J.D. Robb’s futuristic world is out-of-bounds. In fact, a lot of the available technology in her 2058 is available here-and-now…just on a much smaller, less affordable scale. As I was reading through the in Death series, it occurred to me that there are some things to keep in mind if you’re gonna take the leap and move the world forward.

These are items of world-building that are useful both for a positive/negative future, and also for historical novels. (Though, for historical works, the answers to these questions/concerns inherently come from your research.)

And now I ask you a ton of questions — you’ll note these are things we debate today…humans are nothing if not creatures of habit.


1. Energy
What is powering the future? Oil? Renewable energy like solar/wind/water? Lithium crystals? How does the energy resource work? Are there periods of “downtime” (i.e. brownouts)? Who controls the energy resource? The government, corporations, small bands of local farmers? Where’s the money? He who controls the energy controls the world.

2. Sex
Who gets to have it? For what purpose? What are the rules around it — genders, ages, race, religion, marriage? Is it accepted or just tolerated? Who gets to have children? When and why? How is reproduction monitored — cloning, artificial reproduction, etc? What birth controls are available and to which sex? How is pornography handled and what actually constitutes pornography in this future? Is falling in love a goal, is it frowned upon, is it an okay thing? Is sex more business or more pleasure?

3. Groups
Who is in charge? Why? What’re the pro/cons about them? Who is not in charge/disenfranchised? Why? What’re the pro/cons about them? What are the disenfranchised doing to become franchised? What does a family group look like? Who educates the young? What are the values instilled by the elders to the young? How are the elders treated? Who makes the rules? Who enforces the rules? What does the military/police force/vigilante justice look like? What are the consequences within the group for breaking the rules? What are the rewards for following the rules?

4. Technology
Is there a comparable technology today and why is your evolution of this technology the most accurate? Do people enjoy using the technology as it is? (I’ll admit, I’m thrown mostly by Robb’s “links” which are basically cell phones which everyone keeps on Facetime. I hate Facetime and far prefer texting and so do most people I know.) What are the glitches? How dependent is your society on that technology? Also remember — the bad guys will have this technology too. Anything that can be used for good can be used for evil.

5. Religion
How is faith regarded? How is it policed? How does it police? What are the tolerated religions and what religions are excluded? What’s its role in government? Who practices it? Who looks down on it? Who respects it? How is faith communicated (kneeling, genuflecting, etc)? How does prayer work? Are prayers answered?

6. Currency
How are goods and services bought and paid for? How are they exchanged? Who decides the economic factors? Who is impacted the most? The least? What are the highest valued professions? Which are the necessary professions? How are luxuries defined? Who gets the luxuries? What does poverty look like? Who suffers poverty? What is the money? Gold? Silver? The magical self-perpetuating stones of Reorax?

7. Entertainment
What does it look like? Is it respected? Are there forced entertainments/propaganda? What is publicly decent/indecent? Who decides? How is it enforced? Is there a written language? Who’s allowed to read/write/communicate? What do performances entail? Who supports the entertainers? How? What are sporting/musical/contest events like? Who gets to participate?

What am I missing? Have I asked enough questions? Not enough?

It’s a Kind of Magic

You know, for a fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire doesn’t have tons of magic. In plenty of fantasy, the magic is front and center. Magical creatures, magical people, magical wars, magic, magic, magic…

But, Martin plays it subtle. In most of the first book, there’s hardly anything magical at all. A hint here and there, a couple of ghost stories, but nothing major. Granted, it gets bigger as the series continues and more of the supernatural crops up. But, as a part of world-building, Martin really treats magic as many other writers would treat electricity in a modern setting. It’s useful, it can affect characters and plot, but it’s not the main attraction.

It’s an interesting choice. Why’d he do it?

My theory: I think it’s because Martin is really interested in historical fiction and he wanted to write a historical story. Doing it in the fantasy genre allowed him to hold on to all the fun stuff with historical fiction, yet mix it up a bit by creating his own settings, politics, religions, etc. In a sense, I would almost call the series less a fantasy series and more a historical fiction series that just happens to be set in a world that Martin made up.

The payoff: In fantasy, as with any other genre, there are those who do it well and those who do it poorly. When fatansy is poorly written, the magic becomes the be-all end-all and it sets up deux ex machinas and all of that other nonsense that happens just because it’s convenient to the story. Why did the character do that terrible thing? He was cursed! It’s not his fault. So, you get the terrible act, but no real consequence, because he’s absolved of guilt. Poof! Done. Boring.

When you downplay the magic, and use it to make problems instead of solve them, then you’re making life more complicated for your characters. When you look at Martin’s books, the cost of magic is high and you don’t always get the outcome you expected. Usually, characters who get tangled up with magic find themselves in more trouble than they started out in. They have to fight harder, struggle more, and in turn, we get more invested.

World Building vs. Character Building

Today I’m going to follow up on my earlier post about The Year of the Flood. I had talked about Atwood’s world building, which is immersive and draws me right in. She doesn’t info dump, but rather, she gives little glimpses to draw you in. It’s like the world-building peep show. On the second page of the book, one of the main characters, Toby, is looking out at her surroundings:

“She lifts her binoculars, scanning from left to right. The driveway, with its lumirose borders, untidy now as frayed hairbrushes, their purple glow fading in the strengthening light. The western entrance, done in adobe-style solarskin, the snarl of tangled cars outside the gate…There’s a fourth minivan farther along the drive, crashed into a tree: there used to be an arm hanging out of the window, but it’s gone now.

She doesn’t bother explaining things. She raises questions, “What’s a lumirose? Why is there an arm?” and moves on. For a reader like me, it grabs me right off. I get curious. So, why do I find The Year of the Flood easy to put down? The characters and plot don’t grab me.

Most of the book is focused on flashback. We start with a post-apocalyptic setting, and the most fun parts of post-apocalyptic fiction are wandering the world, seeing the carnage, and watching the characters overcome the wasteland’s challenges. Flashback takes all of the fun out of it. We start with everybody being dead. Then, it goes back years to a storyline that is, honestly, pretty dry. We see both characters’ lives before the flood, and for both, it involves little of their own conflict and a lot of them observing other people.

The questions I come to for characters are: What’s at stake? What do they stand to gain or lose? What’s important to them? Or, put another way: Why should I care? I know both of the main characters survived the disaster. Everybody they had conflicts with before is presumed dead, so there are no reasons to assume that the big adversary from a decade earlier is about to resurface, especially since she spends hardly any time in the present once she gets past the first few pages. I made it to page 215 and I’m bored with the flashbacks. The past isn’t interesting unless it affects the present, and there have only been maybe 15 of those 215 pages that have anything to do with the present. Those 15 pages are mostly world-building pages, too. The closest the present has come to conflict is that one of the characters had a run in with some wild pigs and might be running low on food some time in the next few months. That’s fine as conflict to get you warmed up in the beginning, but when does it get bigger and more urgent than that?

To sum up: The Year of the Flood has left me high and dry. I want to care, but I don’t. I like the world, but an interesting world isn’t enough to get me through 400+ pages.


Whether you call it speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy, or some other term, one thing all these genres have in common is exaggeration.

In Atwood’s fiction, she takes certain traits of people, society, nature… and blows it up beyond real life. You end up with gene splicing run amok, super hippies, and Handmaids. In The Year of the Flood, there’s even Painball. The best way to describe Painball is by reminding you of the idea of Roman gladiators duking it out in the arena. Switch it to contestants who are exclusively criminals and a no-holds-barred, out-for-eviseration, setting and you have Painball.

This week, I challenge you to exaggerate. Let’s do some world building. Think of an aspect of modern society that gets on your nerves (road rage, political extremists, people who say they are allergic to certain foods, but who are really just picky eaters). Now, list out all the details you can think of about that thing. Pick an aspect or two and exaggerate. You have a society where this one thing is a key part of the culture/politics/daily life. What happens when the whole country revolves around road rage?

Write it out. Don’t just make it big, make it larger than life. There’s your world.

Happy writing!

World Building

I’m working my way through Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. The interesting thing to look at is how she built her world.

On one hand, she explains very little. She tosses the reader right into the midst of rakunks and a post-apocalyptic world. It’s not until much later that she explains about the genetic manipulation that created the menagerie of unusual critters. I haven’t gotten to the explanation about the apocalypse yet, and I’m half way through the book. Atwood is confident enough to think you’ll just go along for the ride, which is cool.

On the other hand, there’s oodles of extra stuff. She includes sermons from one of the characters and religious hymns throughout. It adds texture. Or, it’s intended to. At first, I read them. Now I skip them. For my money, I’m just not into it. But, then I’m reminded of something Neil Gaiman said about Fragile Things when people said they weren’t into the poetry. To paraphrase, he said, “Don’t think of it as a book of short stories and poetry. Think of it as a book of short stories with free poems added in.” Based on my impression of Atwood, I think she’d be on the same page as Gaiman.

World building is such a fine balance. Do it right, and people get sucked in. Miss the mark, and…

So far, I’m kind of on the fence about The Year of the Flood. More commentary on that later.