The Prophet’s Chronicle Storyworld

One of the things fiction allows us to do is examine hypothetical situations that don’t exist in the real world. A novel is a large-scale thought experiment. This is true of any fiction, but doubly true in speculative fiction. The whole point of science fiction and fantasy is to explore worlds that don’t actually exist.

The storyworld in which my first novel, Alara’s Call, and the other books in the series are set is modeled after nineteenth-century Europe, with all the small countries close together and interrelated royal families and court intrigues. But for all its differences, Europe was long united by a single dominant faith, and most countries had similar governing systems. In my stories, I want to examine several contrasts. This meant I had to set up the storyworld in ways that differ from Europe.

Alara's Call Storyworld

Mary Elizabeth Hall helped get my storyworld out of my head and onto a map. When I started, the sea didn’t have a name. She convinced me to give it one.

Polytheism vs. Monotheism

Alara is a Telshan cleric. Telshanism is a religion closely modeled on Christianity. So one of the things the storyworld needed to have was a polytheistic religion. There are several such traditions in Europe, though they gave way to Christianity centuries ago. The main inspirations for Kivatanism, the polytheistic religion of Alara’s opponents, were the Greek and Norse pantheons.

The northern nations of Apanumon and Makut are predominantly Kivatan, while the southern nations of Glynrell and Redíque are predominantly Telshan. The Telshan faith is Trinitarian, with an important difference from Christianity.

Some of us occasionally refer to the Holy Spirit as “she,” because doing so helps us acknowledge the feminine nature of God — who must have a feminine nature because both male and female are created in God’s image.

I took that notion and flipped it, so Alara’s faith has a feminine Creator, a feminine Redeemer, and a masculine Counselor. This has led some people to liken Alara’s Call to The Shack, but I’m pretty sure none of those folks have read my book yet.

It was important to me not to have an all-female trinity, because that would incline people toward matriarchy, which isn’t where I wanted to go.

Patriarchy vs. Egalitarianism

Because matriarchies are not often found in modern culture, I am more concerned with using these stories to examine the differences between patriarchy, which we often still find, and egalitarianism, which we currently strive for yet often fail to achieve fully.

In Christianity we have a verse that says “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 NRSV). Yet we often don’t behave as if that were true. I’ve given the Telshans a similar verse, and it informs every story in the series. My construction of Telshan culture exists largely to show what a truly egalitarian society might look like.

To contrast that, I established the Kivatan countries as being strongly patriarchal. Their faith limits women’s roles and restricts their activities. The Kivatan faith allows polygamy and gives fathers complete control over daughters’ lives. Women do not participate in the public sphere at all, while in Alara’s country women have complete freedom.

If I’m honest, Alara’s culture is a meritocracy. One’s status is dependent upon one’s abilities and accomplishments. I hope to examine that more closely in Book Two.

Monarchy vs. Democracy

The United Kingdom’s parliament made a start at democracy, and heaven knows large parts of the French population tried repeatedly to democratize that country. Nevertheless, nineteenth-century Europe was still largely monarchial, as is my storyworld.

In Alara’s Call, her home country of Glynrell, where the Telshan faith is predominant, stands as the only democracy. Alara’s mission becomes advising world leaders about democracy and egalitarianism. Naturally, they are not too pleased by her message. Much of the conflict, not only in this book but in those that follow, centers around the desire of monarchs to hold onto power despite the will of the people and the words of the prophet.

Of course, anyone who knows anything about European history can see where this is going. I trust that the fantastical spins on the journey will make the effort worthwhile to readers.

When you’re creating a storyworld, whether it’s fantastical or historical, consider what you need the storyworld to have for your story to do the things you want to do. Setting is an important element of fiction, and your storyworld can and should both affect your story and be affected by it.

Alara’s Call — Release Day!

If you follow me on Facebook, you may be sick of hearing about this, but if not, I’m pleased to say that today is the release date for my first novel, Alara’s Call. It’s book one of my series The Prophet’s Chronicle.

Cover of Alara’s Call

Sara Helwe did a fantastic job on this cover. Clicking the image will take you to the publisher’s website, where you’ll find links to all the major booksellers.

In the lead-up to this release, and for the rest of the week, I’ve been on a blog tour. The schedule is below if you want to visit some of these other sites and learn more about Alara, her allies, and her storyworld.

On September 21 we’ll hold a Facebook party to celebrate the book’s release and give away some amazing prizes, including a Bible study bundle and tons of books, many of which have something in common with Alara’s Call.

If you’re in Central Florida, you can join me September 30 for a launch party, 1–3 p.m., at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, 1655 Peel Ave. in Orlando. Light refreshments will be served, we’ll give away some door prizes, and a friend and I will give a dramatic reading of a key scene from the beginning of the book.

Thanks for being part of my journey and allowing me to be part of yours!

Alara’s Call Blog Tour: September 11 through 22

September 11, Review of Alara’s Call, Gretchen Engel,,

September 11, Interview, Catherine Bonham,

September 12, Visual Post, Jebraun Clifford,

September 13, Review of Alara’s Call, Kate Jameson,

September 13, Review of Alara’s Call, Anna Tan,

September 14, Guest Post by Kristen Stieffel, Laura A. Grace,

September 14, Interview, J.M. Hackman,

September 15, Review by Travis Perry,

September 15, Visual Post, Liv Fisher,

September 16, Top 3 Post, Laurie Lucking,

September 17, Behind-the-Scenes Feature, Steve Rzasa,

September 18, Review of Alara’s Call, Laurin Boyle,

September 19, Behind-the-Scenes Feature, Kristen Stieffel,

September 20, Guest Post by Kristen Stieffel, Gillian Bronte Adams,

September 21, Review of Alara’s Call, Michele Israel Harper,

September 22, Guest Post by Kristen Stieffel, Rebecca LuElla Miller,

Fiction Q&A: Styling Royal and Noble Titles

Q: When referring to a king or lord, when do you capitalize—if at all—for sire and your majesty and such? For example:

All we can do now is wait and pray that you and your healers can help my sister, your majesty.

I’m so confused. Thanks for your help.

question answer


A: Titles are tricky, because it depends how you’re using them.

Generally speaking, the title will be capitalized if it’s being used with or in place of the person’s name. So in your example, Your Majesty would be capitalized. That’s what we call “direct address.” But if you and I are talking about the king, “king” isn’t capitalized because we’re using the word to talk about him, not as a name when talking to him.

Similarly, “Prince Charles” is capped because it’s part of his name, but when you refer to “the prince” it’s lowercase because you are not addressing him directly.

This is also true of military titles. So you might write:

Next, Admiral Akbar will give the briefing
(capitalized because it’s part of his name)

“Good morning, Admiral.”
(Capitalized because it’s a direct address in place of his name.)


“The admiral said it was a trap.”

The exceptions—I see a lot of people get these wrong—are these:

  • sir
  • ma’am
  • my lord
  • my lady

Unless they’re at the start of a sentence, these are lowercase, even in direct address, per The Chicago Manual of Style 8.32. So “lord” is capitalized in “Lord Fauntleroy” and “Your Lordship,” but lowercase in “my lord.” Chicago doesn’t include “sire” in this list, but the usage example in Merriam-Webster shows it lowercase, presumably because it’s akin to “sir.”

Generally speaking, the “Your” forms are capitalized (Your Excellency, Your Majesty), as are “his” forms (His Excellency, Her Majesty), while the “my” forms not (my lord, my liege).

This post originally appeared at my other blog.

Q&A: Do I Need Italics for Flashbacks?

question answer


Q: I used italics in a scene with a flashback, but my critique partner said I should never use italics. Here’s the part I put in italics:

He sat in the cold hospital waiting room, feeling numb. This was just like when Mom died. We did all we could, the doctor had said. 

I thought characters’ memories were supposed to be italicized. Now I’m confused. What’s the right way to do this?

A: Confusion is understandable, for a several reasons.

First, you’re not the only one who’s confused. Your critique partner is—I’ll be generous and say “overstating the case.” Whenever someone gives you a never in regards to writing, your inner warning klaxon should go off. Writing is an art, and cannot be governed by rules involving always or never.

For example, we italicize words when they are used as words.

Second, you are only partly correct about characters’ memories. The practice you’re thinking of is to put remembered dialogue in italics. But this only applies to dialogue. We use italics instead of quotation marks so the reader won’t mistake it for something being spoken aloud at the moment.

But the rest of the character’s memory does not need to be in italics, because it’s interior monologue. It could be italicized, but it doesn’t have to be.

Fiction Q&A: Using italics for character thoughts

Here’s how I’d set your sample:

He sat in the cold hospital waiting room, feeling numb. This was just like when Mom died. We did all we could, the doctor had said.

So the only italicized words are the ones the doctor spoke.

The difference between memory and flashback

The last point of confusion has to do with defining a flashback. What you have is not a flashback. It’s a character memory. The character is thinking about what happened in the past—that information is his interior monologue.

A flashback is a fully formed scene set in an earlier time. So it should be typeset like any other scene. In fact, in the flashback, you would not set the dialogue in italics. You’d put it in quotation marks, just as in any other scene.

Here are a couple of excerpts from Rescuing Olivia by Julie Compton. At the start of the story, Olivia is comatose after an accident. The story is told in a set of flashbacks alternating with present-day scenes in the hospital. The story is told from the viewpoint of Olivia’s boyfriend, Anders.

The day before had started pretty much like many of the others they’d spent together.… She reached for him, wrapping her arms around his neck and pulling him close. “Let’s go for a ride today. A long ride.” She gave him a peck on the lips. “Take me somewhere I’ve never been.”

The time cue “day before” lets us know when the flashback takes place, and this is emphasized by the use of the past perfect tense (“had started.”) Olivia’s dialogue is in regular quotation marks.

Later, Anders is sitting in the hospital and remembers the conversation.

The doctors and nurses stood in stark contrast to the family and friends of patients, whose hollow eyes and weary efforts to smile at strangers gave them away. They were like the walking dead, and Anders wondered how in the short span of twenty-four hours he’d managed to become one of them.

Take me somewhere I’ve never been. 

The irony of Olivia’s request was that it seemed to Anders she’d been everywhere, and he’d never left Florida.

A flashback, like any other scene, can run as long as necessary to show what’s needed. A character memory should last only a couple of lines, as you have done.

If you find that a character is spending a lot of time thinking or talking about the past, consider whether it’s all really needed to move the story forward. If it is, consider rewriting those parts as flashbacks rather than character thoughts. Because a flashback is—or should be–characters doing things. Which is usually more interesting than characters thinking about things.

I know flashback and memory sound like the same thing, but they’re not. A flashback takes the reader into the story’s past. A memory keeps the reader in the story present, but the viewpoint character is thinking about the past. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one.

Subplots, Side Stories, and What to Do with Them

Novelists often get carried away with characters. Or maybe that should be, characters often carry away novelists. Either way, well-developed secondary characters can run away with a story if you let them. In one of my sample book maps, I showed how this can happen.

In my fictional fiction (sorry for going so meta on you here), the secondary character Cordelia suddenly gets a lot of attention in Chapters 5 through 8, with a big-city adventure that has nothing to do with the heroine, the hero, or the villain.

Sample Book Map

Click to open larger so you can actually read this.

If we can in fact tie Cordelia’s storyline together with Antonia’s in a plausible way, then Cordelia has a subplot. But if that’s the case, the subplot should amplify or contrast what is happening in the main plot. Also, we’d want to see more alternation between Antonia’s main plot and Cordelia’s subplot. If you stray from your primary story line for too long, the reader’s attachment to the protagonist can break. This leads readers to stop reading.

So the book map can show you where you need to mix up your subplot with your main plot. In this case, we need to insert some Antonia chapters in between Cordelia’s chapters. It’s also possible to mix scenes within a chapter: alternating three scenes featuring Antonia with three scenes featuring Cordelia or someone else. Tolkien does this in The Return of the King when he switches back and forth between Frodo and Aragorn.

What if Your Story Isn’t a Sublot?

When a story line like Cordelia’s branches off on its own like a runaway freight train, and you cannot plausibly tie it back into the main plot line, you don’t have a subplot. You have a side story. The difference is that a subplot is integral to the overall story arc, and removing it will damage the narrative. Perhaps not irreparably, but it will take some doing to patch up the holes.

A side story, on the other hand, can be pulled out of the narrative without doing any significant damage to the surrounding scenes. It’s like the difference between remodeling and redecorating. You can take the curtains down without too much fuss, but if you rip out built-in bookshelves, you’ll have some work to do to mend the walls.

I have seen books make it to print with side stories intact, but these make for unsatisfying reading. The feeling of reading two unconnected stories at once is unsettling, especially when we’re accustomed to seeing such stories come together eventually.

If you find yourself with a side story, I recommend pulling it out and letting it stand on its own. There are several things you can do with such a story.

My favorite is to offer it as a free download for subscribers to your newsletter. If these subscribers have not read your book yet, the side story will give them a taste of your writing style and can help convince them to buy the book. If they have read your book, the side story gives them a chance to spend some more time with your setting and characters.

If you already have some other item serving as your sign-up premium, the side story can be offered as a feature on your web site. This is best for short stories, that is, under about 7,500 words or so.

If your side story is longer than that, consider publishing it as an e-book instead. Whether you choose to make it permafree or charge for it is entirely up to you. The longer the story is, the more likely you are going to be able to charge for it. Your ability to sell a short work will also depend on your track record as an author. Results vary widely, so it’s certainly work experimenting to see what kind of results you get either way.

You probably had fun writing the side story, so your readers will probably have fun reading it.

Use Storybreaking to Fill Narrative Gaps

Once you’ve made your book map, you may find that it reveals a gap or disconnect in the writing — a place where you’ve jumped from point A to Point D without explaining to the reader how you got there. Storybreaking can help you close that gap.

Narrative gaps can happen when you know how your characters accomplished something, but the readers don’t. In first drafts we may accidentally omit a scene that needs to be included. It’s also possible to write a scene so quickly that your characters accomplish their goal but you’ve failed to give enough detail for the reader to imagine it happening.

Sketching out a storyboard is a good way to break down a story if index cards aren't your thing. • Illustration via Fotolia

Sketching out a storyboard is a good way to break down a story if index cards aren’t your thing. • Illustration © ojtisi • Fotolia

Let’s say your hero is breaking into the villain’s fortress. In Scene 41 he arrives at the alligator-filled moat. In Scene 42 he climbs through the window of the drawing room. Wait, what? How did he cross the moat, evade the guards, and scale the wall? We need a storybreakdown here.

Get out your index cards.

Working from the onset forward works for most writers. He arrives at the moat — then what? Will he swim, or something else? Let’s say there’s a flying buttress on the other side, so he’s going to get out his grappling hook, toss it onto the buttress, and swing across the moat. Write that on a card.

Now see, that was a cool bit. Aren’t you glad we thought to add it? Now go back earlier in the story and edit that grappling hook into his kit so it doesn’t come out of nowhere.

Conversely, you can work from the result backward: to climb in the window he has to scale the wall, so write “scale the wall” on a card. That grappling hook will probably come in handy there, also. From there you can keep stepping backward until you close the narrative gap.


This technique isn’t just for novelists. A memoir writer may gloss over an incident, thinking it’s unimportant. But omitting the incident can leave a gap in the reader’s knowledge that leaves a subsequent scene confusing.

If a memoirist is writing about the time she was on her way to an event and was angry with her friend for not being there, we have no context for understanding her anger if we haven’t had a prior scene to set that context.

Step back: Why would the memoirist expect the friend to be there? How about because the friend was the one who talked the memoirist into going. But then the friend bailed on her.

That’s a valid reason for the memoirist to be angry. So we need to add two scenes to provide the context: One in which the friend does the cajoling, and another in which the friend bails. Those two scenes would close the gap.

In instructional nonfiction, gaps can happen when an expert forgets that newbies need to have all the steps broken down for them, sometimes to the foundational basics. I’ve been guilty of telling clients to set their paragraphs to first line indent of .5 inches without telling them where the Format Paragraph dialogue box is or how to get to it.

Break down the steps one by one, keeping in mind the knowledge level of your target readership. How much you can gloss over and how much you need to explain in detail will depend on how much they already know. So now I know to write, “In Word, click on Format and then Paragraph …”

Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, book mapping and storybreaking can help you ensure you hit all the points necessary for your readers to follow your story or explanation.

Using a Book Map to Edit a Novel

Last time we looked at how book maps can help in nonfiction editing. Now let’s look at how this technique can help novelists.

As I worked on how to illustrate this, I found myself redacting so much information from so many client book maps, that you would get more out of this exercise if I just created a fictitious book map that illustrates multiple problems at once. All of these represent real problems I’ve seen in unpublished manuscripts, but this way I don’t run the risk of violating client confidentiality, and you get all the illustrations in one place.

Sample Book Map

Listing the chapter titles on the map illustrates a problem I see occasionally—an author giving chapter titles to most chapters but missing a couple. While reading the manuscript this could be easy to miss. Writing the chapter titles on your book map forces you to look twice at each one.

Nonfiction writers use epigraphs (introductory quotations) more often than novelists do, but I have seen them in novels. In one case, the author had placed the same epigraph at the top of two different chapters, so I recommended changing one of them. Another chapter had no epigraph at all.

Sample epigraphs courtesy of the LitQuotes Random Quote generator.

In one novel I edited, most chapters concluded with a diary entry. But some of the chapters lacked this feature. For consistency, every chapter needed a diary entry. The book map clearly showed the author which chapters broke the pattern, and also showed when the entries were out of order.

Mind the Gaps

The first installment of this series, Use Book Mapping to Examine Structure,” included J.K. Rowling’s book map for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which includes columns for various aspects of the story, including Harry’s relationships with Cho and Ginny, the Order, and a subplot featuring Hagrid and Grawp. That chart shows that she doesn’t let any one subplot go for long without attention, and some chapters touch on every one.

Conversely, a book map can show the gaps when too much attention is being paid to one subplot at the expense of others. When you depart from your hero or heroine for more than a few chapters at a time, you have to ask who’s story you’re really trying to tell. Secondary characters can take over a story if you let them. Return to your main characters frequently to keep the readers focused on the principal characters.

Sometimes the subplot needs to be cut down or even cut out. Other times it means the main plot needs to be beefed up. Every situation is unique, but the book map will help you look at the scenes in a condensed space so you can consider your options.

Download a sample spreadsheet book map.

Reading the manuscript straight through, you could miss these things. Taking the time to chart them on a book map, no matter what mapping format you choose, makes the elements of your novel easy to view so discrepancies become more noticeable. A book map might also reveal when a climax comes too early, or when a scene repeats something that’s already been shown.

Next time, we’ll return to the concept of storybreaking and see how it can be used to fill in those gaps.