I’ve often told the story of how the short story “Pimp My Airship” started as a joke gone awry on Twitter. When the story was actually requested, I had to build a world. The main criticism the story received was that there seemed to be a lot of world that the reader barely gets to see in the five-thousand-word story. When I fleshed out the origins of the Star Child, it led to the novelette “Steppin’ Razor”; and a throwaway line about “the Five Civilized Nations of the northwest territories and the Tejas Free Republic” led to the novella Buffalo Soldier. I won’t lie, the criticism still followed me. Perhaps they had a point about how much world I can compact into a story. That’s because my favorite part of the writing process is worldbuilding since that’s when I really get to play. For Pimp My Airship, I allow myself plenty of room to build out my world. Its creation centers around three areas: Continue reading
When I conceived of the Andan faction of the hexarchate, I saw them as beautiful, rich, and cultured. In particular, I saw them as the people who weaponize culture. Raven Stratagem depicts a major Andan character for the first time, and while she’s somewhat atypical (she went into special ops against her mother’s wishes), she hasn’t entirely escaped her early training.
Years ago, when I was in college, I borrowed some of my boyfriend’s Robotech tie-in novels. I went online (as one does) and looked up more information on Robotech on the internet, and found an interesting essay that questioned the novels’ portrayal of singer Lynn Minmei and her songs as a cultural weapon. I’m sorry I can’t link you to the essay; cursory Googling has failed to turn it up and, as it’s been something like fifteen years, I have no idea if it’s even still on the web. Continue reading
One of the joys of writing novels over writing for the screen is that your budget is infinite and your imagination is unfettered. You don’t have to worry about the cost of the number of suns your planet orbits around, nor about the practical effort required to have half a dozen alien races, none of whom conform to a basic upright and bipedal morphology, appear repeatedly and interact with your human characters.
In Down Station, when I blew up London – which in and of itself is a somewhat technical task, involving setting fire to the Underground and melting the streets around Mayfair – I needed somewhere for my survivors to run to. That somewhere was Down, which has more in common with Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Julian May’s Pliocene Earth than it does C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. I wanted Down to be both eerily familiar and surprisingly different: you can, of course, read the Books of Down and not worry about what happens under the bonnet, but as the author, that’s exactly what I had to do – open it up and tinker with the engine until I was happy with how it all worked. Continue reading
In the beginning, there was the protagonist, and the author saw that it was good.
My worldbuilding process starts after the creation of the protagonist, never before. I write novels to tell the story of a person, not the story of a world, and all of my novels have sprung from a first impression of the main character. For The Empress Game trilogy it was an image of Kayla holding a kris dagger in each hand, fighting another woman in a pit while criminals cheered her on.
Once I have that first impression of a character, the worldbuilding begins. Who is she? (The exiled princess from a rival planet) Where is she? (Hidden on the slum side of her hated enemy’s border planet) Why is she there? (Trying to raise credits to buy passage back to her homeworld) And, most importantly, why is she special? Why are we telling her story, and not someone else’s? Continue reading
I was a teenager when I walked through my first snowfield. The snow was artificial, of course. It was winter in Australia and the snow machines sat on the side of the fields, like fallen barrels.
The High School I went to took us up to the snowfields on an excursion. To be honest, I can’t tell you why. It’s strange, but over the years, I’ve forgotten the reasons for all of the excursions I went on in school. Like an amnesiac super soldier, I can’t explain to you why I was in Canberra in 1990, or in Melbourne in 1989. It would be nice if I was part of a secret cartel of child assassins, but in all honesty, I suspect we were just there because our parents needed a break. Whatever shadowy deal the school did with our parents (as schools everywhere do shadowy deals with all parents) the deal was made to take us up to snow fields in June. There, we rode ski lifts up to the top of a mountain that none of us could ski down. Later, we rode the lifts back down. Continue reading
Are there supermarkets? Specialty groceries? Farmers markets? Hell, do people even bother cooking at home? Does everyone crowd into the same diners and cafés? Are there bistros and bars? What does your city look like at breakfast, lunch, and dinner? What time do those meals start?
I can ask and answers those questions about my current city (Santa Monica, California), and I’m going to start asking them next month when my family moves to Seattle, Washington. I can do the same with cities I’ve visited, and I can get a surface understanding of that neighborhood. Food is the thing that unites all humans. We all have to eat. How we eat, however, is open to interpretation. Continue reading
I 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. Continue reading
World-building is a cool part of fantasy, but one of the hardest things to get right.
I like realistic worlds in my fiction. By its very nature, a goodly part of fantasy eschews them. A big chunk of the genre tends to fairly simple settings the better to tell its stories. There’s a real art to writing books like that, and as a narrative style it has its advantages, but it sacrifices verisimilitude. Fair enough, not everyone wants reality in their fantasy. The clue, you may say, is in the name. Who wants realistic fantasy?
Well, I do. I do want reality in my fantasy, as counter-intuitive as that sounds. I’m firmly of the school that the stranger the world is, the more real it has to feel. Construct a real enough imaginary environment and anything seems possible. I love Sword and Sorcery, with its vertiginous sense of deep time and holy-cow weirdness. I like the less grand guignol end of grimdark, as it suggests grubby existences of high infant mortality rates and oppressive lives lived in suffocating cultures. I love worlds with real ecologies, societies, economies and geographies. All of the “ies” Bring me more, so that I might feast upon them! Michael Swanwick, Michael Moorcock, Gene Wolfe, Ursula Le Guin, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Leiber, Richard Morgan, George R.R. Martin, Robert Silverberg and of course JRR Tolkien – these are writers whose works I love. Continue reading
Worldbuilding is a big topic. Especially for epic fantasy. Or it can be, anyways. Writers and novels differ on approach, of course. With my series, The Vault of Heaven, I did spend time thinking through some things before I got deep into the writing. Glad I did.
Before I dive in, though, I should say that I also left lots of room for spontaneous creation. I don’t map my books out in infinite detail. I likes me some surprises along the way.
When it came to the worldbuilding, however, there were a few bits I locked in from the get go. And because worldbuilding is a ginormous topic, I want to focus on magic this time around.
I sat on a panel recently where the topic was basically: heavily rule-based magic vs. the more open approach. The examples thrown out by my co-panelists went something like: Brandon Sanderson on one end and Terry Brooks on the other, maybe Tolkien. You’ve likely heard this before. One side of the continuum has very precise rules for how the magic works — it reminds me, in fact, of Magic: The Gathering. Then, on the other side of that same continuum, you have magic that just works, and may even seems inexhaustible — with nearly no consequence for the wielder.
First off, for me, that last bit is a cardinal sin. If a character can wield something as super-awesome and powerful as magic and do so infinitely, he or she is pretty much a god. And gods don’t tend to lose many battles. To balance that out, the writer would need to give that super-awesome and powerful magic to both sides of the conflict. The escalation is endless. And silly. It might make for fun reading for a while. You know. Lots of cool visuals. Battles of epic proportions. Gods throwing mountains. The sky filled with lightning scorching entire countries. Time reversing itself. Suns exploding. And on. And on. Continue reading
Every novelist, in every genre, builds worlds. Mine aren’t on a distant galaxy but close to home, perhaps a little too close to home. I like to ground the reader in a world that they’ll recognise, then tilt the board slightly so that as the menace emerges they think, “This could happen to me.” It seems, though, that not everyone is happy with this twisting of rules they hold dear.
In Saxon’s Bane, I started by creating an English village that could trace is foundation to a Saxon warlord, Aegl. Back then, there were deer and boar to hunt in the woods, fresh water in the stream, and the ground would be fertile. It was a place for Aegl to ground his spear and plant his generations. Allingley was founded.
“Where is Allingley?” I’m sometimes asked. Readers seem to finish the book knowing the place, and want to go there. They’re disappointed when I tell them it’s imaginary. World-building comes easier to me, you see, when I take elements that I know and blend them into something fresh. The scent of an otherness, for example, in the depths of an ancient wood. Even the old language is recognisable in the traces of Anglo-Saxon that linger in modern English. Allingley would have been Aegl-ingas-leah in Anglo-Saxon, the clearing of Aegl’s people. I can also borrow from established legend, in this case the warrior Aegl or Egil and his wife Olrun, the Swan Maiden. I brought their story to life in this sleepy village on the banks of the Swanbourne, where, nearly one and a half millennia later, the peat-preserved body of a ritually-slaughtered Saxon warrior is uncovered.
World-building from legend and folklore also allows me to weave threads of reality or literature into the plot, for example the Old Norse epic poem Hávamál, when the God Odin talks of the power of runes:
Ef ek sé a tré uppi váfa virgilná,
Svá ek rist ok i rúnum fák,
At sá gengr gumi ok mælir viđ mik.
If I see a corpse hanging in a tree
I can carve and colour the runes
So that the man can walk and talk with me.
Runes are a rich source material, both as script and faith-laden symbols. I’m not a pagan, but I’ve always been fascinated by the old faiths, when people lived close to their gods, at one with nature rather than being given dominion over nature. I created a character in Saxon’s Bane, a fresh-faced, bright-eyed young pagan woman, who is part of a tradition of healers that has survived in this remote area despite the witch-finding pogroms of King James. I think by the end of the book I was a little in love with her. I researched pagan traditions and crafted a belief system around her that I called the ‘Old Way’. She is a counterbalance to an archaeologist who becomes obsessed with her project, and who doubts her sanity as she struggles to reconcile her academic discipline with her growing, preternatural understanding. Their story unfolds through the eyes of a car crash survivor, a man on his own journey to healing, who does not know whether what he saw at the edge of death was real or a product of his own traumatised mind.
So far, so good. My world-building rang true. I had a location, I had characters, I had the catalyst for a plot. I could start to bring the Dark Ages to life in present-day England, but always keeping to my principle of plausibility; a car that crashes as it swerves to avoid a stag, for example, and the discovery of a stag tattoo on the peat-preserved forehead of the Saxon warrior.
I find there’s a risk in making worlds too plausible. If you write on the principle of letting the reader think ‘that could be me’, it’s a short step to the reader thinking ‘that is me’. There’s a character in the book who finds the ‘Old Way’ too mild, and who experiments with some seriously nasty ideas of his own. As the past begins to echo in the present, he comes to believe in his own power and slides from reprobate to psychopath. All too plausible, apparently, for one practicing Wiccan. There’s an emotional rant on Goodreads from someone who is “nauseated” at the suggestion that any follower of the Horned God could be anything other than sweetness and light.
Oops. It seems I’ve blundered across someone else’s world. Perhaps I’d better start building a little further away. Gallifrey, for example. It might be safer. Meanwhile, I’ll send this off to Civilian Reader before I’m turned into a frog.
* * *
Fergus’ world changes forever the day his car crashes near the remote village of Allingley. Traumatised by his near-death experience, he stays to work at the local stables as he recovers from his injuries. He will discover a gentler pace of life, fall in love – and be targeted for human sacrifice.
Clare Harvey’s life will never be the same either. The young archaeologist’s dream find – the peat-preserved body of a Saxon warrior – is giving her nightmares. She can tell that the warrior was ritually murdered, and that the partial skeleton lying nearby is that of a young woman. and their tragic story is unfolding in her head every time she goes to sleep. Fergus discovers that his crash is linked to the excavation, and that the countryside harbours some dark secrets. as Clare’s investigation reveals the full horror of a Dark age war crime, Fergus and Clare seem destined to share the Saxon couple’s bloody fate.