Work continues on my in-progress novel, the first part of which mostly takes place aboard a space freighter. I find my best “world building” comes from writing about things and letting the ideas fall out as I go along, as I have previously written about here. I have found some of that very challenging during the course of the novel, mainly as I felt it required some aspects of knowledge that I didn’t have immediate access to and dealt intimately with the spacecraft the action takes place in and around. Its one thing to conjure up an image of what it might be like, but to “realistically” write say, an action sequence that is logically consistent with the layout, furnishings and equipment  one might find in such an environment took a whole lot more planning.

By the time I reached that point, I was still wrestling with “issues” of how the overall ship was laid out internally. I felt that I needed lots of answers in a very short time and because of this, progress became stunted and slow. I found myself in a mire of technical details that I might not really need.  The best constructed worlds aren’t full of intricate details of everything, they are full of the right details of the things that are important.

I attempted to work out several problems through sketches in order to flesh out as many details as possible without resorting to words, which at least gave me a handle on which bits of the ship would be where and why it was laid out architecturally the way it was. Against these themes, I would plot out the basis of the action sequences, from the top layer downward; that is rough action, to placement, to detailed step by steps, should I need them. By plotting these steps outside the writing of the story you can usually see which things need to be dropped if they are unimportant to describing the flow, or just get in the way of pacing. You may even realize which points are so important that you need to map them out a fraction of a second at a time, for that slow-motion, bullet-time intensity.

My experience in creative narrative experiences in video games (and going way back to pen & paper RPGs and wargames) was perhaps the best help I could ask for. Out comes the pen and paper! 5mm graph paper is invaluable! You can easily draft a rough plan of anything you might need, estimate distances and appropriate timing of any action you might need, as well as look for illogical actions and inconsistencies.  In some cases, seeing the relationship of people and objects in rough form can help you generate new ideas as well.

Comparing official “Beowulf” vs. the fan made “Helen of Troy”    Credit: Games Designers Workshop/Far Future Enterprises, Fan version: Ranger2261 on Citizens of the Imperium

My choice of subject matter meant there was a wide selection of available deck plans on the net, from which to get an idea of “what should be in such and such a room?”  Going back to the Traveller RPG for a moment, one of my favourite starships – the 200 ton Beowulf Free Trader – has been “redesigned” many times and consequently, one can see a wealth of design approaches for the vessel. It is interesting to see how some people place the rooms inside its tiny hull and what details they choose to draw in the rooms. The bridge – obviously the focus of a lot of starship action – sees the most change. In my favourite version of the plans, the bridge is very simple with two control chairs seated before two computer consoles. However, there is a separate tunnel or crawlspace going around the back for the consoles to allow access for maintenance. This sort of thing is usually omitted on most deckplans, but here it becomes a defining feature of the bridge – and a useful place for a character to duck behind in the middle of a firefight. A minor point, perhaps, but a major idea if you needed one – and let’s be honest, would you draw it on a deckplan?

I really feel that visualizing the action around these details is incredibly important. Long ago, I interviewed a game designer who, like me, had a deep background in the Traveller RPG. As part of his design portfolio, he had fabricated deck plans of a spacecraft of his own making. I remember asking him why he had placed iris valves/airlocks in certain places and he explained that he envisioned scenarios where the use of them would be critical – boarding by pirates or decompression, etc. In other words, they were placed to support potential action, rather than just “be there.” They weren’t just furnishings or an extravagance to fill out the plan, but they were focal points, or even characters, in fictions yet to be written.

Unfortunately, I’m not ready to publish my own deck plans from the Latent Pulse (I’m not even certain about the name yet, let alone its sordid architectural secrets!) but I do have a few sketches of the exterior. These sketches have usually never been for “public consumption”, but rather for trying to wrap my head around the design, looking for features that make me go “ah, that’s how it needs to look!”  Consequently, they are my “hairy” sketches, as I’m cursed with the need for drawing ten lines for every good one. 😦  I’m not really happy with the overall feel of it yet and I still have to do sketches of what is probably the most important part of a freighter – the cargo hold. There’s been a few sleepless nights agonizing over whether it should be a top-loader hold similar to our terrestrial based cargo ships, or the traditional ramp-in-the-side approach. Astute fans of Thunderbirds will see a partial resemblance to TB-2, possibly one of my favourite vehicle designs. So here you go:

Dorsal view sketch, Latent Pulse.
Pencil sketch with digital overlay

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