Devils, Details and Design


The details are not the details. They make the design.
                                                   Charles Eames,  architect and designer

One of the odd traits of civil servants is that certain things are ingrained in us by years of researching ‘stuff’ for ministers. Obviously, when I was still working for Her Maj—I am now a civil servant of the ‘ex’ variety—I was researching in the hope we could turn ministers from their (usually) cockeyed ideas and pet enthusiasms and persuade them to do something, you know, sensible for the good of the country instead. Looking at the state we’re in, maybe we were better at researching than we were at persuading.

The point is, though, is that it becomes second nature to build up examples of said ‘stuff’. And you get to like lists. And, boy, does that help when you’re world building.

Don’t sigh. It’s a necessary thing for you to do. Even if you’re writing a contemporary novel, you need to know about the culture and society, even the geography and weather of the place you’re setting it. That way you get the details right, make the story feel right, have your characters acting and speaking right. It’s to make sure that things don’t jar. Real things, real places, reality infused through your story.

I’ve talked before about world building and some of the things to think about when you’re doing it—here, if you’re interested. There the approach I suggested is, sort of: think of something that matters (infrastructure? political? social?) and then decide how it all works in your world. Then take the next issue you need to think about, rinse and repeat until you have a good understanding of what your imaginary world is like. And if you’re anything like me, you have a folder three inches deep with that wonderful ‘stuff’ I mentioned earlier.

The end result should be a world with sense of completeness, of integrity, of coherence. Albion exists for me, and a Victorian steampunk Londinium exists for me, because I’ve thought about them and worried away at aspects of them until I know how things works and how the ‘stuff’ fits together. So I know exactly which building in Museum Street is Rafe’s coffee house, and where in Barnet I’ve sited the aerodrome—Friary Park, if you’re interested;a real park if not a real aerodrome. I’ve thought through everything I think will help enrich my story, from the system of government to how the darn plumbing works.batgirl-wherepoo

And once you’ve done all that, once you’ve thought through how the politics work, the economy, how education’s provided… what then? How do you use it?

Well, that’s where the detail comes in. The thing the Devil’s in. The thing the design’s in.

Details give your created world that completeness and coherence. They make your narrative three dimensional. Rich. Oh of course, not all of it is up front and in your face; but they inform your story, threaded through it like beads on a string. Things you’re consciously putting there to catch at your reader’s attention, hopefully subtly and naturally. Making the world live.

In Gilded Scarab, I try very hard not to draw attention to the steampunky bits. Why would I? Rafe’s my narrator and it’s his voice talking to us. The steampunky bits are as natural to him as breathing. He doesn’t leap up and down yelling at the reader to notice his phlogiston-powered pistol or an aeroship. They’re just there. In the background. Unremarkable to him as a character, so unremarkable to him as narrator. They’re the little details that make the world as he knows it and what he shows the reader.

My Shield folder is three inches thick with details: pictures of star ships, character studies, a timeline six pages long, a perpetual calendar for Albion, lists of ships in Fleet, images of people, places and things that inspired me, even an organisation chart for the military… everything. Some of it’s real and, well, some of it isn’t. But put it all together, and you have all those building blocks, the lovely details that are where the design is, that build the world my hero lives in and that breathe some life into it. That make it all satisfyingly real.

But here’s another thought.

One of the delights of writing science fiction not set on Earth, or writing a steampunk Victorian London, is that the worlds, the culture and society, the government, the geography and the weather are all entirely up to you. You can, you know, make stuff up. Shocking, isn’t it? And equally shocking, not to mentioning liberating: you can get some of the details wrong, or twist them to suit your story. I mean I can write something like this in my background notes with a straight face, and who is going to say me nay?
On the ground, a Shield warrior has his or her Shield suit: close-fitting, black, heat reflecting material threaded through with wiring (masking circuitry) powered by a flat battery pack across the shoulders and upper back. It produces a form of interferomatic dispersion that modulates to scatter radar and infra red/ultra violet sensors – a  layer of energy distortion creating a refractive, reflective shield (in a play on the Regiment’s name).

marbles5It sounds scientific enough, doesn’t it? Sci-fi-ish. It has a basis in fact. What I did was research interferometry (the technique of combining and superimposing electromagnetic waves to study displacements, refractive index changes and surface irregularities) and thought Wow. Okay. If I give that a jump to the left and a step to the right, not to mention turning it on its head and shaking it to see what falls out of its pockets, that sounds like it could be science-y sounding and feasible as a cloaking device.

It might scare the scientists in the world, but if it works in the context of the story, if it sounds convincing enough, well… shrugs. Why not? Sounds good, seems semi-plausible if you squint a bit. I’m okay with that. It’s a detail that adds to the world I’m building. And good world building and judicious use of the lovely little details that come out of it won’t get your reader to suspend disbelief. It’ll get them to believe, instead.

This post is a thin excuse to point out that I’ve redesigned the website slightly to start including some of the ‘stuff’ I’ve collected when writing Shield or The Gilded Scarab. I’ll add to these pages as publication dates draw closer. Do explore them to find out fascinating things such as what Stravaigor means or which dreadnought heads up the Ninth Flotilla. Enjoy!

Devilish details shared here: Taking Shield and The Gilded Scarab.



  1. Excellent post! You’re much more detail oriented than I am–I tend to absorb background via osmosis in a sort of total immersion research-binge, but I think your method and order might serve me better in the future. Love the new layout, too!


    • I love the thinking phase of writing so much and dripping bits of that into the story later always gives me a sense of achievement. As the Mikado has it: “mere corroborative detail to add verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.” Grins


  2. I did a lot of research while I was procrastinating… I mean, writing the Infamous Novel. Most of it was about herbal remedies, and knee injuries (poor Nye!), In the process, I also learned about my own knee surgery back in 1984.

    But I didn’t do any world-building to speak of. Fingers has helped a lot with that, since we’ve been working on other stories in the same world (they’re not sequels, even though I call them the Infamous Sequels; The Cartasonne, the IN, is a standalone in this world). We’ll do some more when she comes to visit in November; she’s going to have her first Thanksgiving dinner! We now have a religion, the countries are more differentiated, we know what clothes people wear, what they eat, etc. I don’t do much description in my writing, which is a flaw I need to work on. My creative writing teachers all stressed dialog instead of description.


    • I’ve not yet a personal spin off from my research, but that has to be a benefit!

      I don’t know that you need lots of description. I’ve just been reading the Honor Harrington books, and loving them, except for the paragraphs of exposition/description where he explains the star drive to us (put it in a bloody appendix, man!) and where my eyes glazed over. You do need some. Enough to whet the appetite so the reader can fill in gaps for themselves, but most of your story should, I think, be action and dialogue. I like to have some details, to know that Bennet has black hair that sticks up a lot and grey eyes and good cheekbones; that Flynn is actually mixed race and golden like wam honey – but those details are small and salted through here and there and come up relatively naturally.

      Hope you and FIngers have a great time!


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