Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Spire City: Guest Post by Daniel Ausema

One of the best authors I have the privilege to know — though only through the medium of the interwebs — is the Colorado writer Daniel Ausema.  Dan has a stunning ability to come up with strange and wonderful fantasy settings, and his latest venture, being published by Musa Publishing, is his Spire City serial.  Here he is to discuss it.


First of all, thanks to Nyki for doing this blog swap. I hope everyone reading this hops on over to Twigs & Brambles to give his post there a read as well.

I've known Nyki through his writing for many years, and one of the things he's done a stellar job on is posts about his worldbuilding process--how to create a secondary world that feels real and believable. One of the big differences in writing between Nyki and me is he has one fabulously invented world that spans thousands of miles and thousands of years, and most of his stories take place within that world. I don't have one world for my stories, preferring to come up with a setting depending on what a given story needs.

Several years ago, I read a wonderful story in one of the pro zines and followed on to the writer's blog. There she had a post with a title along the lines of “Confessions of a serial world-builder.” The writer wrote about how she creates new settings for every story, so that plot and character and setting all rise organically from each other. That resonated with me. I love to imagine new places. I love to evoke the mood and sense of strange cities and unknown lands. And the whimsical and surreal twists of an unknown place often give rise to and develop along with the stories I'm writing.

The danger, though, is that worlds made up on the fly can become thin. If immersion is important in a given story (which isn't always the case, but...), then the bare spots of a poorly imagined setting can work against that and weaken the entire thing. So how do you avoid that?

With my serial fiction project Spire City, I initially wrote a single short story set there. For that, the main character was a banker, and the mood was inspired by Kafka, so those two things affected what I needed to portray of the city. That's the first key. See your setting from the eyes of your characters. (And hear it from their ears, smell it from their nose, etc.) An obvious premise at first glance, but something writers don't always do well. Are the cobbles important to mention? They are if it's something your character would notice. The origin of the stone used to make them? Not so much in this story...and yet I'll keep in mind that it may prove important for some reason. The giant beetles that pull Victorian carriages through the streets? Perhaps. The singers chained to the city's steeples? Absolutely. The economics of how those singers are supported, fed, trained, etc.? In this story that wasn't important to him at first. He noticed the songs and the sounds of their voices. As the story progressed, he found himself needing to learn some of those other aspects, and so the world builds by necessity.

When it came time to do the episodes of Spire City, the banker was gone, as was most of the Kafkaesque mood, and there were going to be numerous characters whose minds would be our windows into the city. So I did spend some time just working through various aspects of the city. Regular, old-fashioned brainstorming. How does the city fit into the broader world? Does it have a local language, a dialect of a broader language, a mixture of languages? This question led to the presence of an immigrant community within the city, which proves important as the series progresses. And other questions helped tease out the various dimensions of the city, past and present.

At a certain level, too, you can have some things that you just present as true. It requires a certain arrogance that just says this is how things are. It was a dozen years ago that I first discovered some of the works that have been labeled New Weird. Part of what I loved about those books was that very sense of apparent arrogance, as if they were saying, “No, this doesn't make sense, but it's how it works anyway.” Because they're presented in the right way, their very improbable-ness is part of the enjoyment.

The last thing is key not just to this question, but to how I approach writing in general. Don't shut any idea down. As you write, give yourself permission to toss out the most random and bizarre thing that comes to mind. World-building, as Nyki has argued here on his blog, ought to be messy. Lines are never straight. People never fit perfectly into our preconceptions, and neither do cities or nations. Sometimes that bizarre thought will lead to an entirely new wrinkle that impacts all the other parts of the story. Sometimes it has little bearing on anything else. Yet even so, those kinds of things help make the setting more real. Even now, as I'm doing final revisions on the season 1 episodes, I find myself excited by new details that seem to come from nowhere and make the world of Spire City more real. Of course the immigrants' cooking consists primarily of a pungent gourd and glazed nuts. Of course Spire City has a tradition of folk tales about people becoming animals and transforming back, stories that will be especially poignant to our protagonists, as their infection is uncontrollable and permanent. (Actually I just came up with that as I wrote this post...but now it has to find its way in somehow...)

Thanks, again, for the chance to come here and for reading. Let me know any other tips you have in the comments, and check out Spire City, Season One: Infected when you get a chance. Episodes 1 and 2 are out, with episode 3 coming on January 10, 2014.

Spire City is home to mighty machines of steam power and clockwork, and giant beetles pull picturesque carriages over cobbled streets, but there is a darker secret behind these wonders. A deadly infection, created by a mad scientist, is spreading through the city, targeting the poor and powerless, turning them slowly into animals. A group of those infected by the serum join together to survive, to trick the wealthy out of their money, and to fight back.



  1. Spire city sounds fascinating. I find world building hard, so the thought of doing it over and over is indeed intimidating. But it's fun sometimes just to write a story in a setting that works for it. As a fantasy writer, the desire to experiment with new magic systems in particular is something that might drive me to create new worlds.

  2. Thanks, Erica. Some days I feel like by calling it world building we set ourselves up for making it more difficult than it has to be. There are certainly impressive writers who dedicate vast amounts of time to creating their worlds, and that effort is rewarded, but maybe if we called it something else, it wouldn't feel so intimidating.