August 15th, 2014

Writing Paranormal, Science Fiction, and Fantasy Romance

Catherine Spangler

Cathy's Picture, Head Shot-1Hello all! I’m thrilled and honored to be included in the Writers in the Storm Blog community. Since I write science fiction romance and urban fantasy romance, I thought we could discuss creating alternate worlds and world building, and the elements needed for “other-worldly” romances.

Building an Alternate World

There are a number of other-world scenarios:

1) A complete other world, not set on Earth. This could be science fiction, fantasy, dystopian, futuristic, basically any type of story. These stories would occur on other planets, in other galaxies, and so forth. A good example would be my science fiction romance books, the Shielder series. Also, Catherine Asaro’s Skolian Empire series and Linnea Sinclair’s SF romances are in settings other than Earth, as are many other SF and futuristic books.

2) A hidden world within our actual world. Many stories about witches, vampires, shape-shifters, faeries, etc., take place as secret societies on Earth that most humans don’t know exist. My urban fantasy romances, the Sentinel series, are an example. J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood books and J.R. Rain’s Samantha Moon books are two more examples.

3) Other-world societies coexisting on Earth with human societies. Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunter series, where the angels rule the humans; Kim Harrison’s books, where the supernaturals live apart from the humans; and the Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris, are good examples.

4) Stories set on Earth, but with scenarios that are not normal for our world as we know it. This could be time travel, or traveling between Earth and other planets, set in the future, or apocalyptic. Such stories could be classified as paranormal, science fiction, futuristic, dystopian, and more.

In creating your world, you can basically do whatever you want, but there are some requirements.

1) You need to create the rules and parameters of your world: Planet specifications (if applicable), types of people and creatures, their physical characteristics, their powers (and how those powers or any magic works), languages, society mores (how the characters mate, how they survive, how they deal with criminals, etc.), technology, weaponry, and many more details.

2) Most importantly, once you create your world, you must be completely consistent throughout your story. You should follow every rule you have established. If you need to deviate from that for any reason, then you should have a very plausible explanation.

I faced this challenge while writing the fifth Shielder book, Shadow Fires. The hero was a Leor, and the Leors were a fierce and savage race. The heroine, a Shielder, agreed to marry the hero, as part of a deal to save two Shielder colonies. Since I had introduced the Leors in previous books and established their culture, I was bound by those parameters, and found myself writing about situations that were unsettling and certainly wouldn’t be my reading preference. Yet I had to be true to the world and the story. Shadow Fires was the hardest book I’ve ever written. It also received a RITA nomination! I believe that was in part because the story was real and honest, based on the world I had created.

You have to be consistent in your world.

Two reference books that I have used and recommend are oldies but goodies:

There are many more good books out there that can be helpful for world building.

Writing Your Paranormal, Science Fiction, or Fantasy Romance

While there can be substantial differences in your worlds and societies from normal settings on Earth, the rules for the actual story are the same as they are for all stories. Good writing is good writing is good writing.

No matter what the world, your story should have the following elements:

1) Strong, believable characters. Your main characters should each have goals, motivations, and conflicts that drive both the characters and the story. They need to be fully fleshed-out characters with whom the reader can identify, for good or bad. Debra Dixon’s book, GMC: Goal, Motivation & Conflict (The Building Blocks of Good Fiction) is one of the gold standards for GMC.

2) You need a strong, believable, and logical plot to drive the story. Contrivances have no place here. Going back to GMC above, find ways to motivate the events that happen in the story. Make them a natural outgrowth of your characters’ motivations and actions, or those of your societies. You can write almost anything if you motivate it properly, and the reader will go right along with you.

3) Emotion. You must engage the reader and make him or her care about the characters and what happens to them. Since we’re discussing romance, and most romances are character-driven, if you’re writing romance, the relationship(s) should be front and center in the story. Even in plot-driven stories, it’s essential that the reader relates to the characters and cares about the outcome.

4) Employ what I call “Quad D”: Details, Description, Dialogue, and Development (story and characters). There will be more about this in my weekly writing tips (see below).

To sum it up:

Build your world and populate it with your characters, stick like glue to the rules of your world, and then write your story like every other well-written story, no matter the setting or the time period or the world. Good story telling transcends all genres.

Thanks for having me on the blog!

Do you enjoy world building, or find it challenging? Do you think world building differs between genres or remains pretty much the same? Any questions you’d like to ask Catherine?

About Catherine

Shamara_1000x1500Catherine Spangler is a national bestselling and award winning author of the Sentinel series (urban fantasy romance) and the Shielder series (science fiction romance). She is a two-time Golden Heart finalist and a RITA finalist and has received numerous other awards and honorable mentions.

She is an active member of Romance Writers of America and her local chapter, Dallas Area Romance Authors. A frequent speaker at writers’ groups and conferences, she has taught workshops on the creative process, writing techniques, writing paranormal romance, and goal setting.

Catherine lives in north Texas with her husband and a menagerie of critters. She loves reading, taking naps on the sofa with a good football game for background noise, eating chocolate, and playing poker.

Don’t miss Catherine’s newly released book Shamara, the third book in her Shielder series. She posts a weekly writing tip each Tuesday, so please visit her at her website, Twitter or Facebook.

22 comments to Writing Paranormal, Science Fiction, and Fantasy Romance

  • Thanks for a great article! You hit every nail on the head (yes, I know, cliche, but you did). I can see I’m going to have to add your books to my TBR pile.

    • Hi Vicky! Thank you. It’s good to know I finally hit the nail after all those years hitting my fingers with the hammer 🙂 I think writing is like any other craft–slow going as we learn the ins and outs of writing, then becoming more ingrained.

  • Catherine – if where the angels rule the humans – they’re not doing a very good job! 😉

    Honestly, I am in awe of those of you, like our own Fae Rowen, who create new worlds in a book – I have a hard enough time writing the world I’m standing on!

    The beginning has to be the hardest – giving the details the reader HAS to know, to feel comfortable in the world, but not bogging them down with detail. You have my admiration.

    I read a book when I judged the RITA’s – Immortally Ever After, by Angie Fox. She didn’t win, but it was an amazing book – pulled me right into her dystopian futuristic where demons, dragons and werewolves fight in a World War. I don’t even read that genre, and I couldn’t put it down!

    • Hi Laura! I agree that the angels need to try harder! I think that writing in *any* world, including our current world can be difficult when it comes to creating the characters’ private lives. I’ve always had story ideas that weren’t “normal” (wonder what that says about me–lol), You’re also right that while a writer has to develop a complex world, he/she can’t dump it into the story. The details have to flow slowly and naturally in the writing. Angie Fox is a great writer 🙂

  • Hi Catherine. An excellent job of explaining the differences between the differences between the types of paranormal, science fiction and fantasy.

    I’ve been your fan for years and just read Shamara last week. I loved it. I loved the book with the Leor hero too. He was so different from the typical hero so I can see why that book was difficult to write. You did an excellent job. I’ve written historical for years but am now trying also trying my hand at a futuristic since I’ve always been a fan of the genre. It’s a big learning curve.

    • Hi Sharla! Thank you so much for inviting me to blog, and for your kind words about Shamara and Shadow Fires. That Leor hero was very difficult to write. But I think we have to write the stories that are inside us, rather than writing for the market. The stories that come from the heart and soul are those that fulfill us as writers and resonate with readers. I think it’s great that you want to try a new genre! I’m sure you’ll do a fantastic job!

  • I’m also a fan of Orson Scott Card’s book, which contains excellent advice-as does your post! One of the most valuable points in my opinion is that the setting rules need to include a cost for things like magic, to set limits and drive drama.

    • Hello Andrew! Thank you. I agree absolutely on costs of things like magic. As in real life, there should be cause and effects of all character actions. We’re just applying some different physical (and spiritual) laws.

  • World building is the same for historical romances, too–you’re still trying to imagine what a world is like. Yes, you have some facts to help out but you’re trying to make it real. It’s all about what’s plausible. And, yes, that means details, details, details….

    • Hi Shannon! You’re so right. Other time periods require their own special world building, with details that are true to that period. From what I understand, historical romance readers are very savvy and will let you know if you didn’t get the details right 🙂

  • Sharla Rae

    Cathrine, do you keep a note book on the rules of your worlds? I have to do something like that for historicals but I’d think in order to remember imaginary planet rules etc. that you’d have to!

    • Sharla, I didn’t keep many notes as I built my worlds for the SF and urban fantasy series. I’m a “panster” rather than a plotter, and tend to create as I go. I kept most of the facts in my head and made occasional notes, more for timelines. As I’ve gotten older, I find the need for a little more organization and have gone back to make notes as I’ve edited the books for release as ebooks. For the dark fallen angel series I’m working on, I do have a binder filled with research, story arc, blurbs for each book in the series. So, depending on the person, a notebook is probably a good idea.

      • Sharla Rae

        Yeah, I’m a panster too as far as the story goes, not so much on the world building or I’d forget stuff. 🙂

        • I understand, Sharla. I forget stuff now, too, so I do keep notes. But I still tend to let the smaller details work themselves out as I write.

      • I’m so glad to know I’m not alone on the, ‘create as you go,’ bandwagon! Everyone tells me to outline, plot, and plan ahead, and while I do tend to have a destination for the story in mind most of my details and such happen as I go. 🙂

        • Hi Toni! Sorry for the slow response. I do a presentation on, and have an article titled.”The Subconscious Writer” and have discovered that many writers are pantsters and create as they go. You certainly don’t have to outline or do a complex plot to write a good book. I’d go crazy if I had to do that 🙂

  • Catherine, I look at writers like you and Fae in awe! I despise research and Fae swears when you make your own world, you don’t have to worry about that. But how would I keep all those details straight?! *runs and hides*

    I’d much rather keep my notes in Scrivener on real stuff that I need to know about each character and get a few real-world facts sprinkled in for interest. My mind doesn’t work the same way as my paranormal and fantasy writing pals’.

  • Hi Jenny! I look at writers of other genres in awe, because they process in ways that I don’t. Fae is right that not all world building requires extensive research. However, science fiction requires good science. When I need that, I turn to trusted experts.

    You make a great point about how your mind works. Each writer has his/her own way of creating, and there’s no right or wrong way to write. That’s why (IMO) it’s never a good idea to compare your writing process to those of other writers. Just saying . . . 🙂

  • […] you write science fiction, fantasy or paranormal, check out this post on world-building with great tips and steps by Catherine Spangler in Writers in the […]