Thursday, February 3, 2011


Please join me in welcoming guest Nancy J. Cohen to The Fascination Files -- she's here to tell you all about world-building, an endeavor that has served her well as a writer of sci fi/futuristic romance. Read the excerpt she's provided and see what I mean.

By Nancy J. Cohen

A particular recipe for research is required when writing a sci fi or futuristic romance. About 3/4 cup of imagination starts the story rolling. Add in 1/8 cup of scientific accuracy and 1/8 cup of futuristic terminology. Mix it all together and let the tale flow forth.

Where's the best place to find the ingredients?


Television & Movies
The Star Trek universe is a widely accepted cultural phenomenon in the United States. Get familiar with the terminology. Words such as phasers, transporters, and photon torpedoes should roll off your tongue like water. These are part of the genre conventions and need no explanation. Watch classic sci fi shows for the same reasons. You’ll become familiar with the landscape.
Reference Books
Look for movie sourcebooks, video game guides, sci fi film technical manuals, and computer game magazines. These can be springboards for your own ideas when you're stumbling for authentic sounding technobabble.
Comics/Graphic Novels/Role Playing Games/Video Games
These genres have a wealth of sci fi materials. You might find something inspirational.
Newspapers & Magazines
Articles on futuristic technology can give you useful ideas for your own imaginary world. Or take a current issue and extrapolate what might happen in the future. Overpopulation? Create a world where birthing is strictly controlled. Or have overpopulation so rampant that no one has a moment of privacy. Pollution? Have your people wear gas masks to filter out the poisons in the air. Bigotry? Have two species warring with each other for so long that they’ve forgotten the original quarrel. Endless possibilities present themselves when you look at our world today.
Myths and Folktales
These can provide the basis for your story, as Norse mythology does for my paranormal trilogy.


After you've lined up your source materials, how do you create your particular universe? It's easiest to base a planetary culture on one of our own, either past or present. For example, I based the Souk culture in CIRCLE OF LIGHT and MOONLIGHT RHAPSODY loosely on the ancient Turks, so pashas rule and keep harems on their home planet.

In SILVER SERENADE, my latest release, interplanetary travel is commonplace and conflicts are based on the same problems we have now: lust for power, greed, etc. My heroine, an assassin, teams up with the hero, a convicted criminal, to catch a terrorist leader. However, Silver wants the man dead and Jace needs him alive as a witness in his defense. Who will win out when they catch the bad guy? While the story is character based, it takes place on other planets. So we start out with two sympathetic characters who each have their own goals, motivation, and conflict, and then we put them into outer space where their adventures take place.

The universe you create must remain consistent. Consider the type of government, ecology, religion, geology, cultural practices, education, communications, etc. when building your world. Regarding technology, for example, are your people at a pre-tech level where they use horses for travel, where a carriage ride takes days to visit a relative, and where messages are drafted by hand? Or does your society have interstellar comm networks and warp drives? Consider adding a glossary and other bonus features like I did for SILVER SERENADE in describing the weapons and warships.

As you write your story, twist the terminology to suit your imaginary world. Sprinkle in enough futuristic sounding words and your story will ring with a sense of reality, but don't overwhelm the reader with them. If you're having trouble creating new words, use the dictionary and look up word origins for whatever you had in mind. Then come up with a new twist on an old term. Or try the thesaurus for a likely synonym. Regarding character names, make them different but pronounceable. Be careful not to use American slang and phrases, or you'll jar the reader.

Settings are important in building your world. Use the five senses to bring these places alive for your reader. If you deploy a foreign-sounding word, put it in a context the reader understands so it makes sense. i.e. “A ruella crawled up her arm, its eight legs tickling her skin. She didn’t dare move as the deadly creature paused, twitched its small black body, then proceeded on a heading toward her chin.” Does that make you cringe? You may not have heard of a ruella before but you get the picture.

Research particular topics the same way you would for a contemporary novel. For example, in MOONLIGHT RHAPSODY, my heroine possesses a singing voice that mesmerizes men like one of the mythical sirens. I interviewed a former member of the New York City Opera to learn the proper terms for vocal exercises. In CIRCLE OF LIGHT, I perused an article in National Geographic on volcanoes for a scene on a volcanic planet. STARLIGHT CHILD includes an amphibious species, so I researched frogs. Make sure whatever you create is plausible or at least sounds like it could be real.

Futuristics are tremendous fun to write. Your imagination can soar to great heights, and anything is possible. You have more freedom than almost any other genre. Just remember that the story is first and foremost a romance. Everything we've talked about here is background and should remain so. Don't get so caught up in your imaginary world that you forget about the people you've put there. As a writer, you need to focus on the emotional reactions between your characters. Engage the reader’s interest, and then hijack them with you to your imaginary world.

Here’s an excerpt from SILVER SERENADE to show you how I set a scene in an otherworldly place:

Jace pushed open the double swinging doors to the saloon, his throat dry from the arid air in the ramshackle port town. Smoke from hakah pipes reached him along with a noisy din and the smell of grog. Spacers crowded the dimly lit interior, roughnecks who sported bristled jaws, muscled torsos, and loaded armament belts.
At his side, Silver touched his arm. “Do you see Gruber?
I can barely see my own hand. Let’s go to the bar. He’ll find us.” He hoped their disguises worked. If Gruber’s memory still failed him, the arms dealer wouldn’t remember what they looked like on Stacktown. When they’d contacted him, Gruber had reluctantly agreed to introduce them to Tyrone Bluth as potential recruits. But Jace worried whether they’d be recognized despite their dyed hair and false identities.
I’ll have a Stentorian ale,” he ordered, addressing the one-eyed bartender who needed to see a toothbrush once in his life. “Raven, what about you?” he asked Silver, who’d taken the code name after her new hair color.
She wore her thick tresses hanging loose down her back. If that wasn’t enough to draw male attention, her creamy flesh spilled out of a leather bustier that enhanced her generous assets. More than one roving glance aimed in her direction before assessing her companion.
The same,” she said in a tough-girl voice, sliding onto an empty stool and folding her legs for ample view. Posing as a sharpshooter, she adjusted the rifle slung over her shoulder. It wasn’t an idle boast. She’d explained how as a child, her dad had taught her to shoot sonic pellets at the knobbies eating their grain crops. They couldn’t get too close or the knobbies would feast on them instead.
Hey, sister,” said the large fellow on the next stool over. “Looking for some action?” He gave a gap-toothed grin.
Get lost.” Silver chugged her ale, turning her back on the guy. “I already got a man.”
Don’t look too manly to me. Bet his dick is the size of my little finger.” He wheezed with laughter while others joined in.
Jace stood straight. “Is that an insult?”
Mebbe. Wanna do somethin’ about it?” A knife appeared in the thug’s hand...

Can you visualize this scene? Smell the ale, breathe in the smoke? Can you sense the danger for my heroes if their cover is blown? If so, I’ve done my job.

Putting your lovers into a futuristic setting launches them into a world of excitement, passion, adventure, and danger. Add those ingredients to the ones discussed above and you'll have a recipe that's out of this world.

To learn more about Nancy, please go to:


To Purchase Silver Serenade:


  1. Great post, Nancy. I have just ventured over into sci-fi from fantasy, writing a series of sci-fi novellas. In writing them, I have to agree about the fun factor. I love inventing the new technology of the future, describing the culture and bizarre changes in a futurescape. It appeals to my very lively imagination.

    Your books sound great. I'll have to check them out. You write mysteries too, don't you?

    Bobbye Terry aka Daryn Cross & Terry Campbell

  2. Yes, Bobbye, I write the Bad Hair Day mystery series. I love the imaginative aspect of sci fi romance and paranormals. You're not restricted to reality like you are with mysteries.

  3. Great post Nancy! I've found in writing sci-fi, it is hugely fun. It also requires huge amounts of concentration and attention to detail. At the end of a book, I'm usually exhausted from writing it lol

    I do have your book, just haven't read it yet :-)

    Best wishes for continued success!

  4. Silver Serenade was a great read, Nancy! I've grown up reading science fiction and watching shows like Star Trek. Although I write historical, as well as time travel and paranormals, I long to write a sci-fi romance of my own. Thanks for the great tips!

  5. Thanks so much Sandra. Those books take a lot out of me, too, mostly because they are longer than my mysteries. The story just has to unfold the way it wants to be told. Susan, thank you for your kind words. I'm a Star Trek fan myself. And I love to read historicals. That's what I'm judging for the RITAs.

  6. I love writing sci-fi. It's easier for me than writing contemporary. I think re-imaging the future so it doesn't come out like a Star Trek fan fic does take a lot of work though.


  7. Wow, Nancy, what an interesting conversation! I find it interesting that even though an unreal world is limited only by your imagination, making it accessible to your readers requires more craft that just presenting everyday reality.(I dreamed about a ruella, I think -- not pleasant)

  8. Tina, the key to making any scene come alive is using the five sense, whether you're in a contemporary world or a futuristic one. And if you're writing sci fi/fantasy, it's best to focus on the emotions of your characters so the reader can relate to their world.

  9. Nancy,
    I love the world-building aspect of writing sci-fi and fantasy. It's a joy to escape real life for a while and dive into the world the new story is set in. But I applaud your final paragraph where you talk about the people! If we neglect our characters...what's the point?

    I'm looking forward to meeting you at the writers' conference in April. I think our conversation over lunch will be animated!

    Sandy Lender
    "Some days, you just want the dragon to win."

  10. Thanks for dropping by, Nancy. And good luck to you!

  11. Thanks, Tina. And Sandy, I'll look forward to meeting you, too!

  12. I really think that you have to be a little bit tekkie to make up sci fi worlds. I sure do have great admiration for authors like you, Nancy,who can successfully make a world that is believable and then put romance into the mix. Just fantastic!!!