Writing About Writing: Caution! Universe Under Construction.

The first step in writing a science fiction series, or even a book, is building your universe. You must have every detail carefully planned and recorded along with all the worlds, all the data on the worlds, how people travel there and how they communicate with each other. This must be done before you write the first word of your story.

OR NOT! This is, perhaps, one of the greatest story-killing myths about writing SF. You don’t have to have every single detail preplanned. Your stories define your universe! This is not to say that universe-building should not happen, merely that it, like a good series, is a living, changing thing. The other side of that coin is the gremlin of inconsistency. Not having a single thought about the universe in which your story exists is just as bad as trying to pre-plan everything. Here are a few things to consider from my experience.

1. How Big Is The Place? Some SF stories and even series take place in our own Solar System. This requires minimal planning – we know how many planets there are and how they act; this information is freely available – but it also requires obscene attention to detail for the same reasons.

If your universe consists of a relatively low number of planets or planetary systems then you need only worry about them. Other places are inaccessible, period. Gordon Dickson’s Dorsai books are an outstanding example of this.

If your universe is truly universal, many worlds will receive no detailing at all! Start with the ones your characters visit in your first or first few stories and work from there. Describe in your writing as much about the planets as necessary but have more detail waiting in the wings for the next visit there. E. E. “Doc” Smith loved this size for his universes. This is good to put in your detail document! It also leads to the next topic…

2. How Do Folks Get Around? Hyperspace is a wonderful thing! It is a mystical, magical place that future spacefaring vessels enter in order to break the speed of light. If you plan to use it you MUST know how it works! No, I’m not talking about a technical dissertation on how to build it. How does it work from an average person’s point of view? Driving 600 miles takes 10-12 hours, depending on traffic. I know this and I don’t know anything about building a car! You don’t have to know all the details about faster-than-light travel, just how long it takes.

On that topic, you should also know at least a little about how hyperspace works, ‘scientifically.’ Does the ship leave this universe for a shortcut through that one? Do ships stay in this universe and move really fast? Do they suffer relativistic effects? Are there ‘star gates’ that send ships passing through them to other places? These are foundational questions you need to answer.

3. How Do People Communicate? Can people communicate between worlds? If so, how long does this take? Can planets communicate only with other planets or can they talk to moving starships? What about ships in hyperspace? If they can communicate then how fast is such communication relative to the speed of starships?

Vessels in the Star Trek universe have instantaneous, long-range communication. Signals do weaken with distance, but the citizens of the Federation certainly have FTL communication. There is no such communication in H. Beam Piper’s The Cosmic Computer (orig. title Junkyard Planet). Communication is via letters, written on paper and delivered by FTL-capable starships. So which is best for you? Trick question! Your stories determine that!

I’m going to stop here. There are a few other points in universe construction but I’ll cover them later. For those who are interested, here’s how things work in my universe. FTL travel and communication are both via hyperspace, which in my universe is called linkspace. Astrogation and communication are based on gravity and specifically the huge gravity generated by stars. The League itself is BIG but the civilized space outside it is even BIGGER! Linking from one place to another is a matter of days, possibly a week, but communication is measured in hours. Long-distance travel is done in shorter hops because ships inevitably miss their target when they link out. The longer the link, the greater the distance between the ideal exit point and the actual one. This is called jitter and it’s unavoidable. If you want to learn more, scroll back through some of my older blogs. My best friend in the League, Dr. Ferdinand Kincaid, loves to talk about such things. For even more information, check out my books!

That’s it for now;






2 thoughts on “Writing About Writing: Caution! Universe Under Construction.

  1. I wouldn’t know where to start with sci-fi, but I think that YA sci-fi is probably going to be the next big thing when it comes to fantasy. From what some publishers say…But we don’t write to trends, do we? I guess I’d have to start now. Actually, I’d have to start by reading sci-fi. I think I’ve read two…Nope, won’t be writing sci-fi lol. But this post has me thinking ’cause I really don’t like doing research before I write.

  2. Lorelle:

    By all means, DO write sci-fi!!! You already have the hard part: the ‘YA.’ The ‘SF’ part is as easy as substituting ‘strange tech’ for ‘magic’ (fantasy). Besides, as with any genre, it’s the _struggle_ that defines the story!


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