I spent the better part of two and half years working on a novel as a component of my MFA through Augsburg University (If you’re looking for a solid program, Augsburg offers a great low residency option). Upon graduating I wanted to get back into writing some short fiction, but after working almost exclusively in a longer format, I was a little rusty. Additionally, I wanted to focus on short fiction that blended genres, toed the line between literary and speculative, the kind of story I tried to tell in my novel.
And I got stuck.
I wasn’t sure of the best way to go about doing the necessary world building in a shorter format. While you don’t want to be wasteful with words in a novel, there is some luxury knowing you have room to stretch out world building legs. When someone picks up a novel, they’re committing to a story that takes a little longer to tell. This isn’t the case with short fiction. Expectations are that somewhere in between 1-30 pages, a reader is going to experience a narrative arc, and in that time understand how the world works and how the character(s) live in that world.
So I turned to books.
I had read NK Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, and dug what she did with world building, voice, and structure. Just as I was finishing up the first book (there are two more in the series I need to get after in the near future), I saw that she was releasing a collection of short fiction. The timing felt serendipitous.
How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? is a solid collection of Jemisin’s short fiction spanning her career. And in each selection she delivers on her world building, much in the same way she did in The Fifth Season: inserting information as it becomes relevant to the narrative, avoiding hug info dumps. While I enjoyed most of the stories, I had two favorites: “The Nacromancer” (an adventure/mystery in which magic practitioners battle using the power of sleep and dreams; and “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath Still Waters” (which deals precisely with what the title indicates…A young man tries to survive Hurricane Katrina and runs into both dragons and haints).
I don’t think I’m quite there yet with regards to successfully world building on a micro level, but Jemisin’s short fiction showed me how it could be done.
If you’d like to know more about worldbuilding, Jemisin has you covered. On her website, she has a link to a powerpoint of a talk she gave for the Writers’ Digest Online Workshop.