Writing A Bible

I started working on a bible this week. Don’t worry — I have no plans either to found my own religion or to re-translate the Good Book. I am creating a story bible for my Kormak novels. I am talking about a grand compendium of information, not unlike the sort of thing you might find in a Warhammer army book or a roleplaying game, detailing everything a writer might need to know about the setting, basically the thing that the people who make TV series have for their writers to refer to.

This is the sort of information that when I was younger and running roleplaying games, I really could keep in my head. It’s the sort of thing that when I am writing tie-in novels I refer to the source material for. For my Terrarch books, I wrote a bible before ever I started writing the fiction. I wanted to have something to refer to as I was writing. Since my work has predominantly been in writing tie-in novels I felt more comfortable having something to refer to.

With Kormak, as I have said before, I wanted to try something different. I wanted to create the world as I was going along, explore it as I wrote the stories, to see the world fresh through his eyes. That was my original plan, and mostly I stuck with it. I wrote Guardian of the Dawn and the four novellas that make up Stealer of Flesh with just the barest set of notes—I had ideas in my head, and some notions about the history of the world but mostly I just followed Kormak along on his adventures and took note of what was happening. It worked pretty well too (or so I like to think) so why am I changing it now.

In part it’s because the world is starting to get too large for me to be comfortable with winging it anymore. I know there are some writers who can do this but I am not one of them.

Bits of background were woven into the story in small snippets, in the conversations that people had, in the architecture that Kormak noticed, in the cities he passed through. I prefer to present the reader with background information this way rather than in huge info dumps. I think most competent fantasy writers do.

So, just in passing, Stealer of Flesh gave glimpses of huge areas of history and geography that I needed to write down just so I will remember them. People talked about the Solari Empire and its wizard rulers. They mentioned the rebellion of the Servitors against the Old Ones. They referred to the creation of the Undermen. Kormak travelled through nations where followers of the Moon were being oppressed by the Sun worshippers, places where the peoples had been engaged in religious war for centuries.

I learned from what the locals said as Kormak passed through, from glimpses into the mind of a several millennia old demon princeling, from ruins sighted in the desert, from strange standing towers from which demon voices emerged. There was talk of shadowblights, places where evil made itself manifest in the world, and a kingdom where the roads were so straight that if you looked down from the sky you would see an Elder Sign the size of a small kingdom. I learned of the hordes of cannibal orcs who roam the eastern plains.

When I was writing the first draft of Master of Death, more and more information kept finding its way into the tale. It appeared there had once been a kingdom of human necromancers who had warred with the Solari for control of the northern lands, a war so bitter that both empires collapsed at the end of it, leaving the Sunlanders of Kormak’s diminished age living in the ruins of the elder world that had preceded them.

It became clear to me that somehow I was going to have start keeping all of this straight and my aging brain was not the place to do this. It was time to start drawing maps, and making timelines and keeping track of exactly who did what to who and when. It was time to start noting the names of all the scholars and philosophers and ancient wizards who people kept referring to again. Clearly they were important and nothing helps build a world more than consistency.

One of the problems I find as a writer is that I change things as I write multiple drafts. In Stealer of Flesh I originally referred to time that Kormak had spent in the Necromancer-ruled southern kingdoms but I took this out in the final version. Part of my mind remains convinced that someplace in his world there is a place where foreigners are recruited into the Undead legions by the simple expedient of executing them. That may well be the case, but nowhere in the existing books will you find any reference to that or at least I haven’t.

(Incidentally both Hemingway and Roger Zelazny had a theory that this kind of thing strengthened a story – that a story was a kind of iceberg that the reader only saw the top part of, that the implied knowledge gave the writer confidence in the reality of his writing. That subtracting information from a story made it stronger. I don’t know if any of this applies in my case. I sometimes think it only adds to my confusion. Even that is OK though—in the real world history is messy and confused so there may be a kind of reality lent by that!)

Anyway, I invested in a new copy of Campaign Cartographer, and bought a copy of Aeon Timeline and I set myself to work. Scrivener rose to the challenge as always. The first thing I did was read through all the stories again, writing down dates and place names. As I came across pertinent points of information, I clipped them into Scrivener. (On the Mac this is available as a service after you install Scrivener. You need to tick the appropriate boxes in the Services panel of the keyboard pane in System Preferences to make it available. Once its done you can clip the text by selecting the text, right clicking on it and choosing the appropriate service. You should be able to do this via keyboard shortcuts too but I have never been able to get it to work.)

I now hopefully have an idea of what a reader of the first five stories can be expected to know, and will expect to come back to if they read a new book. From these snippets I have started to distil the basic facts for my bible, put together maps and timelines. This has provided some surprising insights. Looking at the map, it became obvious that the Solari had invaded the lands of the Old Ones from the South. It was the most logical invasion point given the location of their now sunken homeland. When I write future stories, I will know where the most ancient Solari citadels were. I know that in terms of the timeline the Southern Sunlander kingdoms were founded before the Northern ones. Since the Solari were primarily a maritime people they founded colonies far and wide around the Middle Sea, Kormak’s worlds equivalent of the Mediterranean. Already the process is starting to pay dividends in terms of my knowledge of the world. I could go on but its late and I need to get back to creating my bible.

I may come back to this again as the process develops.


4 Replies to “Writing A Bible”

  1. Mr. William,

    Fantastic Idea! That will be extremely useful to aspiring writers and people who are simply curious about the technique(s) you use to create your work. As you age, (gracefully I’m sure) you will likely derive more pleasure from instructing others with your know how. So at least make it available to all of us!

    1. I may make parts of the Kormak Bible available when it’s complete, Adam. I will also be doing some reviews of the timelining and mapping software. Watch this space.

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