On December 20, 2015, Zoe wrote, So I’m working on inventing the world where my story is set right now, and I’m totally overwhelmed with having to invent languages, cultures, religions, political structure, geography, history, all that stuff. I was just wondering, how in depth do you go when you invent the world for your stories, like Kyrria, Bamarre, etc.? How much do you invent about your worlds?
It’s hard to remember what my thinking was with Kyrria and Bamarre, because I wrote the books so long ago. The latest world that I invented entirely was for my mysteries, A Tale of Two Castles and Stolen Magic. And even those I don’t remember well. A kind of amnesia falls over me about the hard parts of writing a book, and the whole first draft is always hard.
So for that reason, I looked at the beginning of my notes on A Tale of Two Castles–and found virtually nothing about world building. The novel is super loosely based on “Puss ‘N’ Boots,” and what I see is me wondering about Puss and why he’s so weirdly clever, not to mention why he can talk. So the world would have to accommodate magical cats. I speculated about introducing a genie, so then this would also be a world with genies, probably because I’ve never written a genie, and they interest me. (Neither the genies nor the magical cats made it into my story. Maybe in a future book.)
A word search on world in my notes. gave me nothing about creating the universe of my story. What I was doing was starting to work out my plot. I do remember that I wanted to use as much as I could of the Middle Ages. In Ella Enchanted, Fairest, and The Two Princesses of Bamarre I invented a fairy tale land that never was historical–but some readers intuited a medieval setting–and must have gotten a prettified idea of the period. In Fairest, for example, I dwelled a lot on fashion, and I used actual clothing, mostly gowns, from several reference books. However, I leaped centuries back and forth, and the outfits were post-medieval, because medieval dress was much simpler than the periods that followed, and I wanted to make Aza look ridiculous.
For the Middle Ages, I bought Castle by David Macaulay, which cannot be beat for clarity, and used his castle as the blueprint for mine. I got two books on daily life in the Middle Ages, not that I read all of either of them–just the parts I needed. And I supplemented the books with googling. For example, I learned what covered the floors in a medieval house: reeds. No carpets yet. And tapestries came later than the thirteenth century, which is the time I focused on.
Unless you enjoy world-building–some people do–why make up more than we have to? I do like to create new versions of imaginary creatures, like dragons, and there aren’t any real-life models anyway, so I spend time on them. In Stolen Magic, I made up an entire new kind of being, the brunka, and that was fun, too.
But my kingdoms have always been monarchies, although I could invent a new system of government, which probably would be fascinating. However, I might also lose myself in it. And when I get lost, when I haven’t made trouble for a character in a while, I get bored.
When my stories involve travel, I do have to come up with geography. But, again, I’ve never developed a new kind of landscape. I’m an admirer, though, of writers who have. I’m thinking of the forest of Ents in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, and the geography in the Discworld invented by Terry Pratchett.
I did create parts of languages in Ella Enchanted, Fairest, and Ever, but I did that because I wanted to, because I loved the languages in The Lord of the Rings, especially the orcs’. I didn’t have to, I could have made all the creatures speak Kyrrian.
Our universe, in my opinion, pales in importance next to plot and character. We don’t have to defy the laws of earth if our plot doesn’t demand it. But, since many of us are into fantasy, it’s nice to indulge ourselves if we want to.
However, sometimes the world steers our plot. In my Disney Fairies books, which take place in Fairy Haven and in which the fairies are the main characters, I had to think about this sort of fairy, and I did create a partially new world, which leaned a lot on the one invented by James M. Barrie in Peter Pan. Looking at my earliest notes, I see myself grappling with the world, but always in hopes of finding conflict. My first idea was that humans were building a bridge to Neverland. Then I decided that the island, which had floated, would get stuck on something. And my notion was that either of these would disrupt the island’s power to confer eternal youth on its inhabitants. I didn’t use these set-ups, but the one I finally came up with did create a crisis in aging, and I had a blast nudging the classic characters along the trajectory of life. Peter Pan, for example, loses some baby teeth!
So, I’d say we should let making trouble be our guide in our world-building. If we are going to invent a legal system, for instance, let’s come up with a law or two that endangers citizens, especially our characters. If we’re going to dream up customs, let’s include a few that oppose what our MC wants or needs.
We can toggle back and forth between world and plot. We can think, What kind of government do we want? And when we think, let’s not leap immediately to tyranny for maximum trouble. We can list possibilities. Maybe, for example, our kingdom is governed by a committee of university deans who want the best for everyone. How might this go wrong? Considering potential problems, we begin to imagine our MC. Who might she be, and what might she want that would run counter to her benevolent rulers?
Here are three prompts.
∙ Imagine that world ruled by university deans. Write a page of description. Write a scene in which your MC bumps up against authority. If you like, keep going.
∙ Your fictional world is our real one, contemporary modern life. Make it a slice of the ordinary that you know well, your neighborhood or your town or the theater group you’re part of. Change only one thing to make it fantasy. Make a list of what that single thing might be, and consider how it might affect your main character. Write a scene. Keep writing.
∙ Going entirely into the strange and unknown, your story is set inside a black hole in dark matter. Take a half hour to google black holes and dark matter (which I haven’t done). Write a page of notes about the possibilities. Write a scene. Be as strange as you can while still being understandable.
Have fun, and save what you write!