Building Worlds with Sci-fi Writer Micheal Nelson

Author Micheal Nelson. Source: Donna Campbell Smith.
Author Micheal Nelson. Source: Donna Campbell Smith.

By Donna Campbell Smith

Micheal Lee Nelson lives in Wake Forest, North Carolina with his fiancée, a pair of sugar gliders, a pair of convertible cars and their matching car payments. By the way, Mich-e-a-l is the correct spelling of Mr. Nelson’s name. He explains, “E-A the Viking way! My father’s side of the family is from Scandinavia, where e-a is the norm and a-e is rare, the opposite of America. Micheal was my dad’s middle name.”

Micheal is a science fiction writer. He says a lifelong Sci-fi fan, futuristic what-if-questions bugged him until he had to write his answers down. After years of research, brainstorming, and world-building his future galactic setting Micheal has written and independently published his first novel, CERES 2525. He describes it as a clean read, military action adventure saga.

In addition to his novel he has been published in local newspapers and had multiple entries published in County Lines: A Literary Journal, an annual publication by Franklin County Arts Council. Currently Micheal is writing CERES 2526, the sequel, among other creative projects in fiction and non-fiction.

Born in Oregon, Micheal was adopted by a hardworking heavy equipment operator and a harder working schoolteacher in Charleston, OR. He enlisted in the United States Marine Corps from 1989 to 1995, carrying a toolbox and an M60 in the 6th ESB 4th Mar Div.

Today Micheal enjoys creative cooking, gardening, photography, and exploring the East Coast, especially the warm beaches of North Carolina, and wielding his creative super powers for the better(entertain)ment of mankind.

Micheal answered the following questions about his writing and the genre of science fiction:

Q) What is unique about writing sci-fi?

A) Sci-fi is the slice of speculative fiction, generally imagining what the future holds, using scientific laws. Our reality, our technology, is extrapolated into alt-future possibilities. What’s hard is what’s unique, trying to maintain a reader’s suspension of disbelief by writing as realistically as you can things you only imagine are possible.

As actor Bill Nye says, “SCIENCE!!” This must be the basis to justify everything in sci-fi. The further away from established science one wanders, the more likely to lose readers and get accused of writing fantasy on foreign planets.

Space Opera graphs as the cross-over between the two, where things like religion, Psionics and/or “the force” bring in elements normally thought of as magical.

In our fraternal twin, the fantasy genre, the speculation is, what effect do magical powers have on the setting and its inhabitants. The writer is freer to imagine wilder “Un-Real” things, justified by “MAGIC!!”

Q) I heard you talking about building worlds. What does that mean?

A) Every writer of spec-fiction is involved in worldbuilding. Simplest definition is: it is the crafting of the imaginary setting for your story. If this is Earth’s present or near future, often the writer is imagining details of locations they have not actually visited, or adding fictional elements into those they know well.

More often in sci-fi we are inventing settings, aliens, creatures, planets, technology from whole cloth. The ultimate is designing an entire fictional universe.

An example close to that is the Star Wars galaxy — far, far away and long, long ago. While like our Earth 2017 reality in many ways, it differs greatly as well. Others include the Marvel and DC comic’s Universes, where superheroes have powers we don’t experience as normal humans in our reality.

The more realistically and consistently this is done the better. Some use a systematic way to create settings. I am a fan of Author Brian Sanderson. For his fantasy works he has identified the true laws of magic:

The Law

Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

I (Micheal) have edited that for my needs:

The Corollary:

“A Sci-fi author’s ability to resolve conflict with technology is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said technology.” Which is entirely unnecessary and superfluous. Sanderson himself describes “tech” as a form of magic, for purposes of applying his Laws to writing and worldbuilding.  But out of such guidelines, we mine gems of advice, caffeinate our veins, and bow our heads down at our keyboards to wage war against the chaos of the universe(s) we create.

Even historical fiction authors, like my friend Suzanne Adair, must invent, fudge, or merge elements of our well known real world historical settings, to fill in gaps and tell their story. It’s not that they don’t intend to be 100% reality based, but the lack of 100% knowledge of the past real world prevents this to some degrees. So, they must “create a world” to patch the holes in the historical records.

Also, when she invents a character to walk through the Revolutionary War Period in the American South, that person did not exist in the real world. Nor did their house. So the house and its contents must be invented even though the street said house sits upon exists in the real world. Maybe even to this day. (21-B Baker St., anyone?)

Non-fiction biographers sometimes change the names and locations of events to protect that “disclaimer” and prevent lawsuits. Creating the alternate names, locations, and details is worldbuilding-light, within the setting of our real world.

Aspiring sci-fi (and fantasy) writers can search “Worldbuilding” to find resources (books) on and elsewhere. My shelf includes some by Orson Scott Card, and several others. Between novel’s I reread from several of these to help my continuing education and improvement.

At the upcoming Book’Em NC 2017 event this fall, I hope to sit on the panel discussing World Building and answer even more writer’s questions on this topic.

Q) What books inspired you in your writing?

A) I am most inspired over my lifetime by Isaac Asimov’s masterwork, the “Robot’s Through Foundation” series. I will let readers go discover why this earned him the only Hugo Award ever given for lifetime achievement. It is just that good. The headline though, is he wrote around two dozen books into the epic saga of the future history of mankind, spanning 25,000 years. Over the course of 50+ years of his life, Asimov wrote these out of order, out of sequence, out of chronology, and as society and technology evolved, changing the genre he cemented. Some tend to think of George Lucas’s Star Wars series of films as foundational to modern sci-fi. Asimov had Lucas beat by two generations.

I read so many by Bradbury and Heinlein I can’t name any individuals, but rather, their body of works. Bester’s The Stars, My Destination which sits next to my bed to this day. Phillip K. Dick’s Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep which I read well before it became a movie adaptation. Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. All of CS Lewis’ writing. Michener’s Centennial and Texas.

My first great encouragement in writing came at age seventeen in Mrs. Burdge’s Honors English class. I connected Steinbeck’s Joad family in Grapes of Wrath with characters from (another great American novel), won a prize, and was published in the county literary magazine. The fact I only got a C in this college level course was discouraging, however.

I will say, if any inspired me in the contrarian sense, it is Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Being a lifelong Christian, I had to take this book and movie with a star-freighter full of salt-grains to finish it, salvage, and enjoy what I could. It inspires me in the sense of, “one day when I write my books I won’t do that.” Meaning, to not intentionally mock faith as Adams overtly set out to do. I have a similar reaction to some themes and quotes from Gene Roddenberry R.E.’s Star Trek series’.

I don’t want to say Utopian, but I have created a more benign and benevolent fictional church for my Galactic sectors, as a basis for the main character’s objective moral systems. Other regions will use different systems. I don’t have one homogenous galaxy. That would be entirely too easy on the author’s brain and schedule.

It is a lot of work, but all these decisions flow logically out of the original one, to write of a future where the faith survives in a positive role in man’s society. Definitely, all of that was inspired directly from reading “Hitchhiker’s” decades ago.

Q) What is your writing process? Do you outline, just start writing and let the story flow or do you have another method?

A) I start with a seed BIG IDEA, usually the epic final battle or key plot point the story leads to. I want to have my hero fight a fleet by himself and win. Then I must figure out how to set up that scene or event by character based actions and decisions. So, first I “plot” it and then “pants” [sci-fi writer jargon for writing by the seat of one’s pants] as I write, the details and dialogue how we get there.

Book cover for Ceres 2525, authored by Micheal Nelson. Source: Donna Campbell Smith.
Book cover for Ceres 2525, authored by Micheal Nelson. Source: Donna Campbell Smith.

My first book started out simply, as justification for a cowboy style duel to the death, with laser guns. The entire Act One of the novel leads to that scene.

The rest of the novel was inspired as logical extensions of character driven and setting driven answers to the base question, “And then what would (s)he do?” I had a vague idea that I wanted my hero protagonist to do a big dramatic climactic “something” to the antagonist and his group. (most movies insert massive battles and explosions here). When it hit me, it hit them.

I start out with a plot, and form that into an outline. I tend to see the story in my head like a movie, I did a huge storyboard on the wall, just like Pixar when creating a movie.

I printed off pictures iconic to a scene and wrote ideas of what’s happening in that chapter below them. I moved them around, got the big plot ironed out, even made a huge cut, realizing some of those were Book 2, (which I #amwriting).

Now that I have a given chapter and the main points to hit in there, I go freeform and “pants” it from there. I really enjoy it when my head is deep in there, knowing everything about my worlds, knowing my character and his abilities. I write him into a corner. It’s hard, but sometimes I don’t know how he’ll get out of trouble… until I’m mid-sentence and it just comes out of my fingers. Somehow, he tells me, and good ideas come from space. That is great fun, and usually turns out to be some of the best scenes, which my readers enjoy the best, too.

Such idea-flow did reroute the outline somewhat as I alluded above. But the best things about my alien inventions from Book 1 came out this way. By the time I got to the end of the book I had learned enough about them that a particular idea popped up to tie it together in a really awesome creative way. I invented something new for sci-fi this way. I love that.

Micheal Nelson is a member of Franklin County Arts Council’s Writers’ Guild. Read more about Micheal and his writing at his websites: and

Additional Links


Donna Campbell Smith, an author based in Franklinton NC, worked in the horse industry for over thirty years as an instructor, trainer, breeder, and writer. She has an AAS Degree in Equine Technology from Martin Community College and is a certified riding instructor. Smith has written four non-fiction books on equine management: The Book of Donkeys, (The Lyons Press 2016) The Book of Miniature Horses (The Lyons Press 2005), The Book of Draft Horses (The Lyons Press 2007), and The Book of Mules (The Lyons Press 2009. All her books are available at or ask for them at a bookstore near you.

Donna is a member of Franklin County Arts Council. Visit her website at