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Interview by Ciara Grey
This issue, we are proud to present an interview with acclaimed fantasy author, Dennis McKiernan. Don't miss our corresponding review of Mr. McKiernan's latest release Silver Wolf, Black Falcon
Fiction Factor - Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. Do you put a lot of thought and planning into how you write the setting into your novels or does it just happen as you write?
Dennis McKiernan - First, let me say that there are many things important to a given scene, only one of which is the setting. [Others are such things as atmosphere/mood, challenge, character(s), sensory input(s) (smells, temperature, and so on), dialogue (if any), props, and other such.]
As for settings themselves, there are several kinds, from the macro to the micro. A macro setting could be a universe, planet, continent, nation, region, etc. (settings on the largish size). A micro setting could be an inn, chamber, hallway, porch, verandah, tree, vine, the head of a pin, etc. (settings more confined). Either of these two (macro or micro) can take much time and effort to get them right: it all depends on whether they are ordinary or extraordinary. It also depends on whether the activities in either type of setting is ordinary or is extraordinary. Extraordinary settings or extraordinary activities require that the setting be such that it enhances the scene.
For the most part, I simply have to give lots of thought to the settings before I write the scenes. Oh, there are times when the settings and the actions are quite mundane (though other elements are driving the scene, such as dialogue), and the thought given to the setting is minimal, but there are scenes where the setting is much the same as an additional character, lending verisimilitude to the story as a whole, whether or not the setting is macro or micro. I would say that in my fantasies, I try to impart a sense of wonder to the tales through the settings.
However, to answer your question directly, my settings are usually take much pondering, hence, for the most part they do not "just happen" as I write.
FF - Is there any instance where setting is not important to the story?
DMcK - For me, typically no. Some settings are rather common (a camp in the forest, a desert well, a room in an inn), yet they aid in setting the scene or in setting the mood/atmosphere or in leading to dialogue, etc.
FF - Do you consider 'world-building' to be the same as setting?
DMcK - I believe world-building includes settings, but is a much larger undertaking. After all, world-building needs to consider many more things than just settings: climate, seasons, continents, economy, inhabitants, animal, mineral, vegetable, planetary system, satellites, oceans, poles, orbits, technology, sentience, social mores, religions, social hierarchies, and on and on. Macro settings are included in world-building, and some micro-settings (a particular key setting needs to have at least a part of the world-building aimed at that setting ... for example, a mountainous region with an active volcano usually requires plate tectonics; a key medieval inn usually requires a medieval society).
So, is world-building the same as setting? Not the same, but allied (it's rather like all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares).
FF - In the confines of a short story, is it easier to create setting?
DMcK - Depends on the story, though in general I would say yes. Even here, though, the setting needs to fit the tale.
FF - Is setting more important in a short work or a longer one?
DMcK - I think that some short stories can get away without much of a setting, for example those which consist solely of an exchange of letters, telegrams, faxes, email, and the like. I can't think of a novel where settings are not important. But I would hesitate to say that settings in novels are much more important than settings in short stories, and vice versa. The setting is a key element in stories, and to proclaim that some setting keys in stories are more important than in other stories I think is false, since the various types of keys (setting, atmosphere, character, challenge, ...) are what unlocks the tale.
FF - Your Mithgar novels take place over a vast amount of time. What are the pitfalls of jumping back and forth in a timeline like this?
DMcK - Keeping everything straight. Making certain that history flows. Making certain that enough time has elapsed for recovery from catastrophic events. Making sure that I keep glossaries which keep track of all the characters in any given story (age, height, race, weight, mother, father, etc., significant event, d.o.b., d.o.d., and the like), place names, and other key descriptions.
To write stories over great spans of time (as well as over the duration of the story), one needs to generate and keep very accurate timelines. In any Mithgarian story/novel, I use calendars and keep track of what happens to the main characters on any given day. To give you an example of the lengths I go to to make sure that various events are accurately tracked in time: I have a program which gives me lunar calendars over a ten thousand year span; I always write down the equivalence between earth years and Mithgar years so that I can use that computer program; i.e., the year 1978 on earth is the same as the year WXYZ of the Fifth Era of Mithgar. Hence, not only can I make certain that the lunar phases are accurate within any given story, but they track from story to story.
There are so many things one needs to keep straight when telling tales over great spans of time, that without accurate glossaries and timelines, one easily gets lost. And even when keeping accurate records, still I make an occasional mistake; I have had to amend a few things in my novels upon subsequent printings ... nothing major, thank the powers that be.
FF - Mithgar is a large place, and you use a map when you're writing. Do you feel other writers would benefit from creating a map of their fantasy/sf worlds?
DMcK - Yes, I think that a map is vital, especially in stories where the protagonists travel significantly. I also think that hand sketches of various dwellings and other such can be very vital as well; for example, a quick glance will verify that the character needs to turn left to get from the kitchen to the living room, or show that the tower is on the west side of the castle, rather than on the right.
FF - In 'Caverns of Socrates' was it difficult to keep the real time and the AI/virtual time synchronized throughout the story?
DMcK - You betcha. I had to make an "interleaved" outline so that events in reality and virtual reality were kept in sync. To make the story work without spoiling surprises, once the tale got well underway (around chapter ten or so), I structured the story so that chapters in reality alternated with those in VR, and for me this was a key to the book. I could not have done it without my interleaved outline (which ran some sixteen pages or so, more than any other tale I have ever written).
FF - Is jumping around in time throughout a story something an inexperienced writer should do in their stories?
DMcK - For any writer, experienced or not, sliding up and down the timeline, or bouncing back and forth among the main characters, is a task that can easily go awry. A good sense of story, or a really good outline, can ease the burden and keep a writer from getting all hosed up.
FF - Do you have any recommendations for making that easier?
DMcK -Timelines, outlines, glossaries, maps, sketches, calendars, various computer programs: all can aid the writer in telling the tale without getting too hosed. Of course, considering timelines, a linear tale that starts at time A and runs forward to time B is usually easier to tell than one which runs in the now, then in the past, then in the future, sliding throughout time as if one were simply walking from room to room.
I have written several stories where I slide up and down the timeline: Dragondoom, The Eye of the Hunter, The Dragonstone. And I have written stories where I jump from character to character or from one set of characters to another: every story in the entire Mithgar series as well as _Caverns of Socrates_. I believe that I've written only one novel where I tell the tale linearly, and stick with the POV of a single character: Once Upon a Winter's Night (a retold fairy tale due out July, 2001).
In addition to using the tools mentioned above (timelines, outlines, glossaries, etc.), the best way that I've found to keep all things straight and in sync is to start a new chapter every time there is a significant jump in time OR a change in POV.
---Dennis L. McKiernan
Dennis L. McKiernan http://home.att.net/~dlmck
Silver Wolf, Black Falcon; and, The Iron Tower, omnibus edition
Forthcoming: Once Upon a Winter's Night (July 2001)
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