Tag Archives: architecture

Thoughts from the Willamette Writers Conference: Part Two

Here’s the introductory post!


The first day (on Thursday) was only a half-day basically consisted of meeting everybody. There were two class-like things you could do, one about succeeding at the Conference and the other about finding the right agent, and then a competition for who had the best Pitch (a pitch, if you don’t know, is talking directly to an agent/publisher, as opposed to the query letter via email or snail mail. It’s even more condensed than a query, if you can believe it).

I went to the success at the Conference basics class, and it was about what I expected it to be. But a pivotal thing happened: somehow, when one of the panelists asked me what my story was about (in reference to a discussion about complicated worlds/settings), somehow what came out of my mouth was: coming of age horror.

Which certainly covers certain elements of my novel (she’s younger, and the story is very dark with some creepy monsters), it didn’t cover the main elements. But it didn’t really matter, because the entire room went:

Ooooooo ~ !

Which was pretty dang encouraging. And put my story in a new light I hadn’t considered from it before. So I began to think of it differently, pondering on all of it’s possibilities. And then people started coming up after the class, asking to hear more about my idea. Which was both very encouraging and helped with forming how I wanted my pitch to sound.

I stayed for the Pitch for the Prize Competition even though I wasn’t going to participate (I didn’t feel my pitch was ready) to make sure I was on the right track about how to pitch. Now. I signed up for a Pitch and I knew it was important, but it didn’t hit me until this point that I was pitching to a publisher who could want my book and possibly sell it. Somewhere halfway through the competition I started not feeling so good.

Fast forward a few hours, and I was home and kinda rather freaking out about my pitch. The sentences for my pitch didn’t work together. I couldn’t say them out loud without stumbling over them. It was too much information. There wasn’t enough information. It didn’t flow right; didn’t sound conversational or easy.

On and on and on.

Which was very frustrating for me, because I knew that if I worried about this pitch the whole weekend, I wouldn’t enjoy the conference as much as I could. Thankfully, my lovely and wonderful partner talked it through with me for a while, and then made me go to sleep. He’s also a writer, with much more technical than me, and talking it through with him always brings clarity.

Somewhere between sleep, the encouragement and help, and repeatedly telling myself that the Conference was for learning and fun and wasn’t going to make or break my career, Saturday morning was much better.

Weird writer self-loathing freak over with!

I met a friend during the opening ceremony (tip: if anyone is ever standing alone, GO UP AND SAY HI. Most people are there trying to work up the nerve to say hi as well. It often starts a conversation that will at least last a class, if not the day or beyond the conference. I feel like 99% of people there are looking to make friends. And 99% of those are introverts and don’t really know how to make a conversation either.) who went with me to the first class I attended: Agents’ Tips for Successful Queries and Proposals.

Jill Marr from Dijikstra Literary Agency and Clair Gerus were there and, after giving an overview of query-making, answered everyone’s questions. It was mostly standard, but in the discussion of writing a great hook, something interesting was posed: your hook could be why you’re querying that person. Ms. Marr said that she’s much more likely to read a query that immediately shows the sender has done research on the agent and the agent’s desires.

Anyway, food for thought.

My next class was Research Strategies and Methods for Writing Historical Fiction taught by Judson Roberts. Roberts writes early Viking Historical Fiction, and walked us through his process on how he goes about writing something like that. He stressed the most important part was to always start with the general and then move to the specific. In other words, start with a overview book about Vikings times, figure out something you’re interested in, and then start delving deeper. The basics were to finds as many original sources of information (exactly like writing a research paper for college) for the time period that you’re interested in writing, because the author will filter and have their own interpretations that are not necessarily correct. Putting your own interpretations on original sources are half the fun, anyway.

So the advice was basically the same for researching characters of the same era. Roberts said to get as much information as you can about particular characters, and that stories from other eras will often have character-pieces about the people you’re writing about. Then the playing with the details can begin: just enough to be fun, but not so much as you’re historically “inaccurate” and loose authenticity.

Roberts also stressed to try to go to the place you’re writing about (if you have the means, of course). There are things that are can seen/heard/smelled that can’t necessarily be understood unless you go there. For example, ruins on cliffs that are never talked about but your characters would see (or that you could incorporate into your story!), what it smells like on this particular street, what the trees look like, etc, etc, etc.

It was all very good info.

Then it was lunch time, and my newfound friend and I drove down to a French bakery she works at. Apparently, she follows the agent she was pitching to on Twitter, and found out that the agent has been looking for the perfect apple turnover. Lone behold, my newfound friend works at a French bakery. Like, a real French bakery.

So we trotted down there and got her thing, and I got a chocolate covered pistachio macaron for FREE. Probably the best thing I’ve eaten EVER. That was AWESOME.

After lunch, I headed to The Wonder of World Building by Karen Azinger while my newfound friend headed to her pitch. We did some practicing and some encouragement and off she went.

World Building was quite neat and informative. It was very structured, and looked at each different aspect of making a world and how important it was to develop from the stand-point of your story. She included in her important aspects to look at: Language (and then Foreign Language), Architecture, Culture, Maps, Religion, Government, Monetary System, and Magic. This is all in the context of Science Fiction and Fantasy, mind you.

Azinger had us all write out diagrams with three columns, and in the first column we wrote down our main characters and our main themes. In the next column, you wrote down the skills the character uses to accomplish his/her goals, or the tools you use as a writer to express the theme you’re depicting. In the third and final column, you wrote down what elements of the list were most important to your story to develop.

Here is a quick (and rudimentary) one that I did:


As you can see, culture, government, and magic are pretty important elements in how my characters use and perceive the world around them (A quick note about magic: Azinger stressed that the laws surrounding magic were particularly important when developing a magical society. And the laws/limits of magic should be believable and the same for everyone otherwise you lose your reader).

From there, you can separate out the things that are not important to develop. You can add the “flavor” of the things being present in the world, but do not have to explain or highly develop them. In fact, it can become boring to the reader to do so. Language is slightly important to my story due to my MC’s research taking her into old Latin texts, but I can simply add the “flavor” of things by adding a Latin word here and there but keeping the rest in English. Then it feels fully developed without having to learn Latin (or make up a whole new language: see Tolkein). On the other hand, the monetary system and religion are next to not important at all. I can just mention Euros at some point in my story (since this one does take place in Europe), and the readers can fill in the rest. A similar situation for religion.

Making up a religion, by the way, is much more interesting than borrowing from an already present one (if it’s important in your story). You could combine two religions together (like Buddhism and Islam in Frank Herbert’s Dune). And Azinger also mentioned (somewhat jokingly) that all Epic Fantasy since Tolkein has to have a map; it’s practically a requirement to have one in the first pages of the book.

Architecture, by the way, is rather important whether you think about it or not. It often sets mood, character, and description of the scene. It’s something to think about; and also something that probably should have unique characteristics per city or place.

Almost at the end of the class, my newfound friend came back very excited that her pitch went well. The agent requested 30 pages, and a request to see more is the best you can get at one of those! I’m very excited for her and hope there are all good things happening there.

And this, my friends, is where I’m going to stop. Alas, I have two more classes on Friday and Saturday to get through before I’m done. But we’re already over 1,600 words and I’ve much more to get through!

Stay tuned! 😉

The next segment can be found here.

How to Stumble About World Building

I’ve always been a little envious of writers who are first and foremost “world builders.” They’ve got their history, culture, geography and general lay of the land allllll figured out while diving into their characters and plot.

I’m such a character writer. I’ll get a picture in my head of two characters talking, or dancing, or fighting – or maybe the image of a girl with ears of a fox ready to spring on top of her doe-eyed sibling. And from there, everything expands as a super-sonic rate. Now the two siblings are actually seven, they are creatures from the wild that turned human to fulfill the role of the “fertility daughters” and marry the princes of the realm, and maybe my fox-eared girl wants a little more from her life.

Now I have an underworld, a banished prince-king, and a plot to seize back the power of Nature to make his kingdom flourish. And, of course, the love interest between two unlikely characters.

The point of this is that I often find myself backtracking. My characters take off with their stories, and I’m making up culture, language, and geography as I’m going along. This causes a bit more to be desired when it comes down to the foundation that these characters are living in.

My first novel was set it in modern day America – which makes things infinitely easier as I didn’t have to create much of the world. But the manuscript I just finished (an alternate-history where the environment has collapsed and the civil rights movements haven’t occurred yet) has been a bit of a lesson for me. True to form, I didn’t build any of the world before I jumped head-long into the characters and their stories. Then I had to do some major backtracking and some particularly awkward word-gymnastics in order to fit what I had written into the world that was arising around them. At one point I wasn’t even sure what country my characters were set in – but I was creating weak references to places and geography anyway.

Once I submitted to the reality that I needed to rewrite and actually build a world, it was actually rather fun to fit little nuggets here and there about how different their society was from ours. I’m no Tolkien, and the thrust of my writing is still character-centered, so their world gets relayed through “commonplace” observations that are not so common to us.

But. At the end of the day, my world building skills are still lacking.

To interject, which will make sense in a second, I recently went on a trip to Washington, DC. I’d been there before over the summer on an internship, and returned there a week ago to attend a conference. I stayed a few extra days, partly because the ticket was cheaper if I stayed longer, and partly because I love DC. The energy of the place thrills me. The architecture and history delights me. And between the nudging of my step-father and my own thoughts, the meld of a blog post and writing exercise has arisen.

World building takes history. It takes geography. It takes people, culture, and events. And what better place to learn this than reality? With this in mind, the rest of this blog post will be dedicated to the history of architecture in Washington, DC as an exercise in learning how to world build.


Washington, DC is a planned city – a lot of people put a lot of thought into the appearance and symbolism behind the capital of the United States. Pierre L’Enfant originally designed the plans (albeit modified by Andrew Ellicott when he took over later) to follow in the footsteps of great cities such as Paris, Amsterdam, Karlsruhe, and Milan. Virginia and Maryland both donated land to form the city, areas that included the pre-existing settlements of Georgetown and Alexandria.L'Enfant_plan_of_DC

DC is designed in broad avenues and streets radiating out in rectangles that allowed open spaces and landscapes. This also helped with issues such as expansion. L’Enfant also designed a “grand avenue” lined with gardens that has become the present day National Mall.

Capitol Building, DCThe Capitol Building holds the honored position of the center of the city (which is aligned to the tallest place in DC), symbolic of it’s position as the seat of American power. The White House is deliberately built down the road, the Supreme court across the street from the Capitol. The city is sectioned up into four designated quadrants, the streets set up in a grid pattern with east-west streets named after letters, north-south streets dedicated after numbers (generally the number of blocks from the capitol), with diagonal streets named after states.

With all of the streets so orchestrated, certain streets have gained particular significance for their locations. Pennsylvania Ave is known for connecting the Capitol to the White House. K street is known for housing the buildings of many, many lobbyist groups. M street is known for it’s plethora of shops, bars, and restaurants.

10530701_10204136958965575_9015096434859182974_nIn addition, here is actually a limit on how tall buildings can be built, so the skyline of DC is low and sprawling (I love it – it’s a city without feeling claustrophobic).

And the differences in architecture of buildings that are even right next to each other fascinate me. According to almighty Google, DC is inspired by a large variety of styles: neoclassical, Georgian, gothic, modern, Queen Anne, Châteauesque, Richardsonian, Romanesque, Beaux-Arts, a variety of Victorian styles, and, of course, modern.

10449920_10203701575361257_5539523921921809619_nGeorgetown is probably my favorite area of DC. It’s beautiful with the red brick streets, the shops, the missmash of buildings, the river. And I love how the neighborhood/community feel combines with the high, passionate energy that seems to impersonate DC in general.10376863_10203701575041249_3693404840649443636_n




But probably the most known architecture of DC would be the monuments and memorials. In the interest of saving anyone’s brain who’s actually going to read through this, I’m going to limit the memorials of people down to the (probably) most famous three.

The Washington25 Monument, dedicated to George Washington (I’m going to assume I don’t need to explain who he was), was dedicated in 1885, fully completed in 1888, and is the world’s tallest stone structure and obelisk. As an interesting historical tidbit, halfway through construction it ran into funding problems (as well as the minor issue of the American Civil War), so the monument is actually two toned, the restart of construction indicated by the second shade of stone starting about 27% of the way up the structure. If you squint at this picture, you can see it.

33The architect of the Lincoln Memorial is Henry Bacon, and it was dedicated in 1922 (I’m going to assume I don’t need to 34explain who Lincoln was, either). The whole building is built in a Greek Doric Temple style, modeled after the parthenon, because Bacon felt that a man who fought so hard for democracy should be honored by a structure found in the birthplace of democracy. In addition to the sculpture of him set in the middle, the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address are inscribed on two flanking chambers on either side of the sculpture.

51Dedicated in 1943, Jefferson Memorial is a circular, colonnaded structure in which the architect for it, John Russell Pope, used Jefferson’s own architectural style and tastes for the design. The statue of Jefferson in the middle looks out towards the White House, and is intended to represent the Age of Enlightenment and Jefferson as a philosopher and statesman. Interesting fact: the structure came under a lot of public criticism because it resulted in the removal of the Japanese flowering cherry trees from the basin. Also interesting: President Franklin Roosevelt laid the first cornerstone.

There are also three war memorials that are of interest: World War II, Vietnam, and Korean.

World War II (dedicated 2004) is interesting because it’s one of the only memorials with fountains. Why? Because fountains are a symbol of war that ended in victory. Whoops. Guess that means we don’t have a lot of fountains. That being said, WWII Memorial is gorgeous, and is probably my favorite. Stone columns represent the states and countries that participated, with a stone structure on either side representing the Pacific and Atlantic ocean (or sides of the globe that participated – world war, ya know).



The Vietnam memorial actually has three parts: the three soldiers statue, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. The main memorial is the Memorial Wall (completed in 1982), a curved long black wall with the names of the veterans inscribed across it. Designed by Mara Lin won the design competition (the choice coming under a lot of criticism due to her Asian heritage), and it is shaped as a V,  one edge pointing towards the Lincoln Memorial and the other to the Washington Monument. It was built to look like a wound opening in the earth – symbolizing the loss that the Vietnam war inflicted.

42The Korean War Memorial was dedicated in 1995, and holds what many call the “ghost soldiers.” Grey statues in various poses with various weapons, they plod along next to a black wall etched with depictions of all those that participated in this war. Men and woman of all races can be seen along the wall (the bone structure in faces are creepy good), along with German Shepards, helicopters, and various other items. There are a few stories of the statues scaring people still at night as they seem to move. (There you go – every good city has to have some ghost-story area of whatnot.) There is a Pool of Remembrance further beyond where the soldiers seem to be headed, along with a granite wall with the inscription, “Freedom is not Free.”



Now. I’m going to stop throwing facts about monuments and architecture at you.

It seems to me that monuments are some of the easiest ways to portray history (this might be a duh). If nobody knew anything about America, you would have already picked up just from these that we idolize Presidents who fight for democracy, individual freedom, and intelligence, and that we engage in quite a few wars that we don’t seem to be winning very much lately. Just imagine, in a novel, your hero or heroine strolling down the street and giving a brief glance and thought to a monument (of your design, of course) – and suddenly there’s history and context to the world with barely more than a description like those above.

Of course, this is me talking, world-building connoisseur I am not.

But the point that I at least have to remind myself all the time is that all places have history, and at least some thought has to be put into it. If you’re anything like me you’re much more interested in jumping to the good bits about the mystery or the character arcs. But maybe the city/town/country of your novel holds clues to the mystery your character is trying to solve. Maybe there’s a hidden monument, a war (or idol) that someone is trying desperately to keep dark. Maybe people have forgotten. Maybe they’re so old people don’t care. Maybe there’s a hidden society somewhere.

Who knows.

But I think that I’ve tortured all your brains enough! Thank you for sticking it out with me to the end here, if you have, and hopefully I’ve given you a glimmer of an idea about monuments and architecture and how to make them fit into your story to help build a stronger foundation and history.

As a final thought: What do YOU do to world build? Any tricks? Does it just jump into your head like divine intervention? What do you plot out – or let occur naturally as the story progresses?


P.S.: Credit for Pierre L’Enfant’s original DC city plan designs go to: “L’Enfant plan” by Andrew Ellicott, revised from Pierre (Peter) Charles L’Enfant; Thackara & Vallance sc., Philadelphia 1792 – Library of Congress. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:L%27Enfant_plan.jpg#mediaviewer/File:L%27Enfant_plan.jpg