Guest Post: “Building a World on One Idea” by Gerrard Cowan

CowanG-AuthorPicI was digging through ancient emails the other day when I came across an old plan for my novel, The Machinery. After admonishing myself for never cleaning my inbox, I decided to take a look and was struck by how different it was from the finished book. In fact, you would be hard pushed to recognise it as the same story.

This is probably true of many novels, but in my case, it stemmed from how the story developed. In the past, when I’ve had an idea for a book, I would come up with the narrative thrust, the main characters, the general setting. I’d have a hazy picture of what was going to happen and where it would take place. With The Machinery, it was different: all I had was the premise of the novel, and I had to build from there.

The conceit of The Machinery is based on the existence of an omnipotent machine, which chooses the leaders of society. They could be anyone at all, adult or child: the Machinery picks them as they are the best suited to their particular roles. There’s only one problem: it seems as if the machine is breaking.

The book started with this idea alone, and went from there. Because I didn’t have even a vague picture of the world in which the action would take place, I had to create everything from scratch. On the flipside, the lack of details early on meant I had a huge range of possibilities to work with.

I did have some things to go on. I realised from the start that I didn’t want to give the book a futuristic setting. I wanted the Machinery to be almost a religious concept, something the people worship and believe in wholeheartedly, but do not get to see (in this book – it’s the first of a trilogy). This seemed to lend itself more to fantasy. So I had my genre, at least.

Now I had to think of a setting. One of the main themes of the novel is how societies cope with the trauma of change – they are highly dependent on the Machinery, but it seems to be breaking. I decided it would be appropriate to set this against a backdrop of social and technological transformation, so I went for a kind of Renaissance world. The country at the heart of the story – the Overland – is wrestling with new technologies, such as gunpowder and the printing press. It is asking itself questions, even beyond the Machinery. This just seemed to fit.


The rest of the worldbuilding was a very messy process, with a great deal of deletions and rewriting. A key breakthrough came with the development of the Operator character. As the Machinery is depicted in a kind of religious light, it seemed natural that there should be a godlike figure interceding between humanity and the supernatural entity they worship. The Operator is an immortal being who tells the people the decisions of the Machinery. He refuses to accept that the Machinery is breaking, despite the mounting evidence.

I then realised that any society that was built around the deification of an unseen object and its servant would need to enforce its strictures ruthlessly, particularly at a time of social and intellectual upheaval. Ideas themselves would have to be controlled. This sparked the development of the Watchers, a kind of shadowy police-force-meets-intelligence agency, who wear strange animal masks and vigorously pursue anyone who doubts the powers of the Machinery.

Beyond this, things proceeded pretty chaotically, with ideas changing and falling apart as I wrote. All the while, the only thing that didn’t change was the Machinery itself. It was the foundation stone on which I built the book.

This was also the first time I seriously sat down to write a novel, which heightened the challenge. It took me quite a while – almost two years, I would say – to develop a proper writing routine, which I was only learning while I worked through the history of my fantasy world. I sound like I’m complaining, but looking back, it was all actually good fun.

As I’ve worked on The Machinery I have thought of other ideas for novels I hope to write, and it hasn’t been the same. The setting appears before me; the main characters are ready to get started. I doubt I will ever develop another novel like I did this one. It’s been tough, in some ways; the worldbuilding aspect has consumed a huge amount of time, and led to several abortive attempts at writing. But it has had its advantages, too. I always knew what I wanted to place at the centre of my world. I always had the Machinery.


Gerrard Cowan is a writer and editor from Derry, in the North West of Ireland. His debut novel, The Machinery is published by Harper Voyager on September 10th, 2015. It is the first in a new trilogy. Here’s the synopsis:

The city has thrived in arts, science and war, crushing all enemies and expanding to encompass the entire Plateau.

But the Overland is not at ease, for the Machinery came with the Prophecy: it will break in the 10,000th year, Selecting just one leader who will bring Ruin to the world. And with the death of Strategist Kane, a Selection is set to occur…

For Apprentice Watcher Katrina Paprissi, the date has special significance. Life hasn’t been the same since she witnessed the kidnapping of her brother Alexander, the only person on the Plateau who knew the meaning of the Prophecy.

When the opportunity arises to find her brother, Katrina must travel into the depths of the Underland, the home of the Machinery, to confront the Operator himself and discover just what makes the world work…

For more on Cowan’s writing and novels, be sure to check out his website, and follow him on Twitter and Goodreads.

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