For Writers

Hey, Let’s Build a World!

When I was in the fifth grade, my teacher frowned on all fantasy books that hadn’t been written by Natalie Babbitt. We read Tuck Everlasting and The Search for Delicious, which were certainly fantastic, but failed to provide a full grounding in the fantasy genre.

This month, my daughter started a unit on fantasy stories in her fifth-grade class, with an integrated curriculum of reading, writing, and analysis. 2019 might have its problems but this, at least, is an enormous step forward. I take this educational unit as a sign of the inroads of respectability the genre has made. And, of course, the great service J.K. Rowling has done for our society.

Pulling fantasy from shadows shines a spotlight, especially, onto the skill of worldbuilding, the construction of convincingly functional settings in which a story can unfold. Although most vital for fantasy, science fiction, and horror, proper worldbuilding provides a canvas that any story can hang upon.

Proper worldbuilding addresses the unseen 90% of the story world that never makes it into a book, the part that hangs below the surface like the bulk of an iceberg, but which has to exist in an author’s mind in order to make the other 10% feel like it’s happening in an actual place.

When setting a story on an alien planet, or on an altered version of our own world, or in a fantasy land with its own laws of physics, I’ve tended to make up the details as I went along. Random bits of geography, weather, culture, history, architecture, cuisine, fashion, governments, and organizations all hung out in my head, on a scribbled map, and in a jumbled file of digital notes. I called this process worldbuilding, once I eventually heard the term, and my stories usually felt like they were set somewhere. But if readers looked too closely, they could see the rivets of a shoddily constructed facade.

Then I had a revelation that my story, set in a specific time and place, with an alternate culture, a huge cast of characters, and a deep mythology, would require more worldbuilding than I could carry in my head.

My second revelation was that there were specialized worldbuilding tools available that nobody had ever told me about.

My third revelation was that there are active communities of worldbuilders who put a whole lot of time and effort into exploring the strange new worlds that they’ve made up themselves. Some of these worldbuilders build their worlds to support a writing project. Some build their worlds to support tabletop role-playing game campaigns. And, most amazingly to me, some build their worlds just for the fun and challenge of it all!

And it is fun. And it is challenging. And it does get your puzzle-solving mind to wander off in all sorts of interesting directions. And it requires a bit of discipline remain focused on just the necessary parts of a constructed world, and to avoid the excessive breadth and depth they refer to as “Worldbuilder’s Disease.”

So I got myself into worldbuilding. I got my fifth grader into worldbuilding. She got her teacher into worldbuilding. And now their whole class is worldbuilding!

If you care to join us, here are some resources to get you started, or to help you guide your own class of worldbuilding students:

World Anvil

I can’t recommend World Anvil highly enough as a platform for developing and organizing notes on worldbuilding. It’s a wiki-type system where users build a Wikipedia style encyclopedia of people, places, and things in their story worlds. Like Wikipedia, these articles can be organized into categories and can reference each other with links. Even better than Wikipedia, for worldbuilding purposes, there are templates that help in eliciting and developing ideas in greater depth. The free version is quite usable, and premium versions offer more presentation options, storage space, and access control.

Worldbuilding Magazine

Now into its third volume of publishing six issues per year, Worldbuilding Magazine and its archives are free online. Each issue focuses on a different theme and its relevance to the development of an imaginary world. The most recent at this writing is “Death and Taxes,” but previous issues have explored the worldbuilding aspects of Magic, Food, Government, History, and other useful topics.

Worldbuilding Books

Tops on my list to read is Collaborative Worldbuilding by Trent Hergenrader, who teaches worldbuilding co-creation as part of his classes in creative writing at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Worldbuilding on Social Media

Worldbuilder’s Sanctum is a Facebook group that skews toward tabletop role-play designers and game masters, but includes are many resources and discussions of value to authors as well.

Worldbuilding on YouTube

Worldbuilding Software

If you need a map to visualize your world, Wonderdraft is a specialized graphics program that makes it quick and easy to create some very nice looking maps in a variety of styles.

My Newsletter

Plug, plug! I’m starting a newsletter focused on my writing and worldbuilding, with instructive examples of how the one helps with the other. The first issue comes out next month, but the subscriptions page is live right now!

Other Resources?

Do you have any resources you like to use to help develop, visualize, or organize your story worlds? Share them in the comments!

Pink Hair and Other Terrible Ideas + Giveaway

Today is World Cancer Day, devoted to raising awareness of the disease and supporting those individuals and their families who are facing it head on. And that’s exactly what MUF contributor, Andrea Pyros, has done with her newly released novel, Pink Hair and Other Terrible Ideas. We’re pleased to interview Andrea and to shine a light on this heartfelt and important book, especially today:



Twelve-year-old Josephine has a lot on her plate―best friend issues, first crush issues, divorced parent issues, twin brother issues . . . and then her mom hits her with news that shakes her to her core: a breast cancer diagnosis. Josephine doesn’t want anyone to know―not even her best friend. Sharing the news means it’s actually real, and that’s something she’s not ready to face. Plus it would mean dealing with the stares―and pity―of her classmates. She got enough of that when her parents split up. Unfortunately for Josephine, her twin brother, Chance, doesn’t feel the same way. And when Chance dyes his hair pink to support his mom, the cat is out of the bag. Suddenly Josephine has to rethink her priorities. Does getting an invite to the party of the year matter when your mom is sick? And what if it does matter? Does that make her a monster?



Andrea Pyros is the author My Year of Epic Rock, which was called “a perfect read for anyone who feels BFF-challenged” by Booklist and “a charming addition to upper elementary and middle school collections” by School Library Journal. Andrea has written extensively for young adults, starting with her stint as co-founder of the pop culture website Girls on Film and then as a senior-level editor at a variety of teen magazines. A native of New York City, Andrea now lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with her husband and their two children. For more information, visit her at


Read the interview and scroll down to enter the Rafflecopter widget below for a chance to win a signed copy of Pink Hair and Other Terrible Ideas. Good luck! (This giveaway is only available in the United States.)

Why was it so important to you to write a book about cancer?

When I was in sixth grade, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. On top of feeling worried for her and scared about what might happen to me if something happened to her, I also felt guilty, because I still had regular middle school kid concerns, like about friends and crushes and school. That seemed wrong, somehow. I wrote Pink Hair… because I wanted kids like me to know it’s totally normal to still think about themselves when a loved one is sick. Life keeps going!

Aside from your own experiences in middle school, was there anything else that sparked the idea for Pink Hair and Other Terrible Ideas?

The idea was born when I saw an article about a student who’d dyed his hair pink in honor of his mother’s breast cancer diagnosis and his school suspended him. I was shocked. Like, here’s someone coping with a parent’s illness and trying to do something positive and he was being punished for it. I was nowhere as brave as this kid. When my mother got sick I was embarrassed to talk about it and didn’t want people to know. That’s why I gave Josephine a twin brother who copes in a vastly different way than she does to their mother’s news—none of us deal in the exact same way when facing a hard time.

What kind of research did you have to do for the book?

I drew quite a bit on my own experience as a child and my memories of my mother’s surgery, and how scary that time was for her and for me. I also spoke with a breast cancer surgeon to learn more about how breast cancer is treated today, compared to back in the 80s. Things have changed quite a bit in how we speak about and understand cancer.

What was your greatest challenge in writing this story of Josephine?

Josephine is a confusing and messy person. She loves her mom and twin brother, but she’s also mad at them and frustrated, and doesn’t always behave the “right” way with them. I wanted to make her real and human, but it’s hard when your main character sometimes does things you don’t approve of.

Have you ever dyed your hair pink?

I WISH! I’ve been thinking about it, but I’m intimated by the upkeep. 🙂

Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process with this book?

Sure! I had a writing group, which is a fantastic motivator. We’d meet every other week and share pages and give each other feedback on our projects. Their notes really helped, as did the enforced deadlines, because otherwise it’s too easy for my fiction writing to get pushed to the side by other job projects, time with my family, or just goofing off. I worked on the first draft with them, and then wrote the first revision with my writing group, as well.

What are some of your favorite writing tips?

My writing tips that work for me (but may not work for you, so take these with a grain of salt): 1) When I’m writing, I block social media on my computer so I’m not distracted quite so easily. 2) I remind myself that a first draft is going to sound clunky and stilted. Don’t panic, it’s going to take shape over time! 3) People write in all sorts of ways—between work and family obligations, or they write during lunch breaks or just on weekends or for thirty minutes in the morning. Whatever it is you’re doing to get words onto paper, you do you. There’s no wrong way to write.

Thanks so much, Andrea, for taking the time out to share a bit about Pink Hair and Other Terrible Ideas!

a Rafflecopter giveaway


Interview with Jed Doherty of the Reading With Your Kids podcast!

Hello Mixed-Up Filers!

How are you all? We are in for a treat today!

If you’re involved in kidlit, then you need to know Jed Doherty, the man behind the great, Reading with Your Kids, podcast, which has featured quite a few of your Mixed-Up FIles team! If you’re not listening, you should be. Jed is a gracious supporter of books and reading and has invited many authors on his podcast.

JR: Hi Jed, and thanks for joining us!

JD: Hey Jonathan, Thanks for having me, and thanks for the kind words about my Reading With Your Kids Podcast. Doing the podcast is a lot of fun. I get to meet some great authors like yourself, and I have made lots of new friends.


JR: Let’s start at the beginning. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.

JD: My most important role is being a dad and a husband. My beautiful wife and I have two amazing kids, who are now wonderful adults. We have also hosted a number of international students in our home, and they have become part of our family.

JR: That’s fantastic. I know that for many years now, you’ve traveled the country, going to different schools and performing magic and speaking out against bullying. How did you get into that?

JD: That was kind of an accident. When I was in high school and college my goal was to become a social worker. After college I worked for many years as a social worker, mostly working with kids who had been arrested, most of them arrested for hurting people very badly. It was my job to help them learn how to deal with their anger and sadness in a better way, without hurting themselves or others, to help them learn how to make better choices. It was a hard job. I really loved doing it. But after doing it for almost ten years I needed to make a change.

I decided to leave social work. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I did know that I still wanted to work with kids and to help them learn how to make good choices. But how? So I said a prayer and asked God for guidance. After I said that prayer I sat at my table and opened the newspaper. The very first story I saw told me that Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus was in Boston and that they were having auditions for clowns that day. I looked up to the sky and said to God “You’re kidding me right?’

I went to the audition and had a wonderful time. I was in the center ring of the circus, in the Boston Garden, the same building that I had been in hundreds of times to watch the Bruins and Celtics play, and I was making people laugh. And that filled my heart with joy. I knew right then and there that I was meant to make people laugh.

I didn’t run away with the circus that day. I had this idea that I could create shows that I could present in schools that talked to kids about things like bullying, saying no to drugs and saying yes to exercise and reading. Some people said I was crazy, that there was no way I could make this dream come true. But I believed I could do it.

I started studying things like mime and dance and magic. Just a few months after that audition I started doing shows in the Boston Public Schools. It made me so happy to be able to make kids laugh and smile while also inspiring them to make good choices.

It took a while to learn how to make a living as a performer. But with a lot of support from my beautiful wife I was able to make my dream come true.

JR: That’s really an amazing story. From there, what made you get interested in kidlit?

JD: I love to read. Books are magical things that can take you to distant countries, or help you travel back in time, or inspire you to create a whole new future.

And I especially loved reading with my kids. We loved all of the Dr Seuss books, I think my son’s favorite book was Captain Underpants, and my daughter loved Tomi dePaola’s Clown of God.

I realized that one of the reasons our family is so close is that we spent so much time reading together, talking about the stories. Those conversations made it easier to talk about other things in life.

I wanted to create a podcast for parents, to introduce them to great books they can read with their kids no matter how old their kids are.

JR: I agree. Reading with your kids is important, regardless of age. How did you transition into the RWYK podcast?

JD: Just like I did when I started to perform I knew I didn’t know how to be a podcaster. So I started reading books on podcasting, talking to other podcasters, learning as much as I could. And of course, the most important thing about trying to make any dream come true is to actually try. To take a chance.


JR: You’ve been very generous about getting authors from all sorts of genres on your program, including me, for which I’m grateful. Tell us about the podcast itself. What is your mission with it?

JD: The mission is to inspire parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and others to spend more time reading with kids, and talking with kids about the stories. I truly believe reading with our kids is the beginning of a life long conversation. I hope that when families read together they will want to start to cook together, and go hiking together and do all sorts of things together.


JR: How long did it take for it to start to be noticed?

JD: Creating this podcast has been a lot of fun. One of the things I am so happy about is that the authors who have been on the show are very supportive of the show and each other. They have helped promote. That helped lots of authors learn about the show very quickly, so within a couple of months folks in the kidlit community started to notice the show.

Our audience really started to grow after five or six months.


JR: Recently, you’ve had on two major celebrities, Levar Burton, for which I was gushing, and Candace Cameron Bure, for which my daughter was. You did a great job with those interviews. How did that come about, and how did that feel when you knew it was going to happen?

JD: I loved speaking with both of those guests. Candace Cameron Bure was so much fun. Her book company actually reached out to me and asked if she could be a guest on the show. It took me about a half of a second to say yes.

LeVar Burton was also a lot of fun. I have been a fan of his work forever. I remember watching him play Kunta Kinte in the television series Roots when I was in high school. And I was a huge fan of Star Trek The Next Generation. And when I became a dad one of the show my kids and I watched was Reading Rainbow.

The inspiration to have him on the show came from my son. He called me one day and said “you should ask LeVar Burton to be on your show.” I thought that is a crazy idea, but since I have always been a fan of crazy ideas I gave it a show. I did a little research on line, found a contact on his LeVar Burton Kids website and sent a request. A couple of days later a member of his team wrote back and said that LeVar would be happy to be on the show.

JR: If authors would like to appear on your podcast, how can they go about doing it?

JD: Easy, they can visit our web site,, click on the contact link and let us know about their book.


JR: Anything special lined up for 2019?

JD: It is going to be tough to top 2018. We did have great guests like LeVar and Candace, and we had our amazingly Spooky MiddleGrade Christmas Special that you were a part of. I am still amazed that you and your Spooky Middle Grade friends were able to create a spooky and fun original story for that show, and the swerve you threw in at the end was fabulous.

In 2019 we are going to strive to have an episode devoted to STEM fields each week. And we are going to grow from four episodes each week to five. And in just a few weeks we will be in Los Angeles to attend the iHeartRadio Podcast Awards, our show has been nominated for the Best Kids and Family Podcast Award.

JR: Incredible news. That Spooky story we did was also so much fun for all of us. How can people follow you on social media?

We have a Facebook page, and folks can connect with my personal Facebook page. On Twitter you can find me @jedliemagic and on Instagram we are @magicjedlie.


JR: Jed, I’d like to thank you so much for joining us today, and wish you much continued success with the RWYK podcast!


Well, until next time my Mixed-Up friemds . . .