Friday, January 30, 2015

Where No One Has Gone Before: World Building

“It is necessary to create constraints, in order to invent freely… In fiction, the surrounding world provides the constraint. This has nothing to do with realism… A completely unreal world can be constructed, in which asses fly and princesses are restored to life by a kiss; but that world, purely possible and unrealistic, must exist according to structures defined at the outset (we have to know whether it is a world where a princess can be restored to life only by the kiss of a prince, or also by that of a witch, and whether the princess’s kiss transforms only frogs into princes or also, for example, armadillos).”Umberto Eco, postscript to The Name of the Rose.

 One of my greatest pleasures as a writer of historical fiction is researching the period in which I’ve chosen to set my stories. At the same time it is my hope to re-create the worlds in which they take place as believably and accurately as possible. It’s fun and enlightening, and also sparks ideas for the plot as a whole or a concept for a particular scene I would not have otherwise imagined. For example, while doing some research for The Partisan’s Wife, the study of old maps and descriptions of New York City during the American Revolution prompted me to write a scene in which my main characters do a bit of shopping at a popular place of the time called the Oswego Market. Making this long gone place and time come alive was a  challenge. I wanted the reader to travel back there in time with Peter and Anne, experiencing the surroundings with them. I was also working within the constraints of  a few certain particulars, such as the fact that in 1777 Broadway in Manhattan ran south and north, the same as it does today.

Now that I’m working on an epic fantasy, I am faced with a different sort of “world building.” There are no resources online or in any library or history book where I can find details of a world that exists solely in my imagination. And yet, in order to bring this world to life and make it convincing, I must approach my “research” in the same way I do with a book based in an actual time and place. Because this constructed world is populated with recognizable beings—mostly human—their lives, desires, feelings, likes, dislikes, goals and obstacles must ring true to the reader in the context I’ve set down. And it must be consistent. There must be rules and constraints, which cannot be broken or overstepped. The planet rotates on its axis and revolves around a sun very much in the way our planet does. It has a moon, like ours (or if I choose, it can have two or three or more moons). Night follows day; seasons change. The people have a history, mythology and legends, whether recorded or handed down in an oral tradition. They have wants and desires, fears and comforts. Society has its customs and taboos. There are social strata in which the people live and work according their class. But all of this happens in a universe that is not quite ours, where aberrant (to us) behaviors are acceptable…even the norm.

Since I’ve chosen as this world one that is similar to ours, with a few differences, it is imperative that the dissimilarities be established right from the beginning (as Umberto Eco states in the quote at the top of the page). One difference in this universe is that something akin to magic exists. To make it real and acceptable, the source and execution of this magic must flow seamlessly within the physical and metaphysical laws I’ve created. Other differences involve the melding of cultures. For the “Lothrians,” a peaceful, learned, culturally advanced bunch, I’ve endowed them with characteristics drawn from Celtic and Native American cultures. For the “Notlunders,” a greedy, ruthless, warlike people, I’ve combined aspects of Roman and Viking culture and history. Although not Tolkien-esque “elves,” the “Milithos” or forest people are Lothrians who have evolved in an environment, which over time has changed their physical appearance and solidified their behaviors. And then there are the little “Skaddock,” who resemble primitive humans in a hunter-gatherer society. All invove research into the beliefs and nature of  these cultures.

In the quote above, Umberto Eco says that this process of world building has nothing to do with realism. Novelists by their very nature create new realities in every book they write. And readers are too smart to accept a world whose laws of nature and physics change at the author’s whim in order to make a plot device work. How the magic is called upon and brought into action depends on how believably these devices are set up in the creation of the fictional universe. How the Milith” people changed in appearance over the centuries since their banishment to the forest calls upon the laws of evolution as we know them and is in itself an explanation for some of their extraordinary abilities. (Through use of a substance they’ve refined over centuries, they can make themselves invisible in certain conditions).

Working within the constraints of this created world and the people who inhabit it, I've established rules that define what is real and what can conceivably happen...hopefully, in a way that is not jarring or false, causing the reader to hurl the book across the room.


Following is a short excerpt from my work in progress, Sword of Names. I hope it is not only enjoyable, but presents an explanation for how a particular old wizard calls upon his magic:

On the other side of the fire pit, seated on a fallen tree trunk, his back to her, Gamba remained engrossed in his work. Moonbeams outlined his form against the smoldering embers, his closely cropped hair sparkling like a snowy crown, his bald pate shining in the silver light. Hunched over the gnarled root of the bracklenut shaft, her grandfather continued to whittle away. Save for his scraping and paring, he had hardly moved and made no sound for hours.

When the moon reached its apex, he pulled a dark cloth from his haversack. He unwrapped an object in his lap, regarded it for a moment, then held it up to the light. A multifaceted crystal the size of a toddling child’s fist flickered with a milky glow. He mumbled something in an ancient tongue and slipped the jewel into the roots of his bracklenut rod, which closed one-by-one, like fingers, around it.

She sat, hugging her knees to her chest. “Gamba,” she said quietly.

After a moment, her grandfather turned, his features masked by the night. He set down the knife and raised his staff to peer through the swath of murky light it cut through the darkness. “I thought you were asleep.”

She shielded her eyes with a hand against the unexpected brightness. “Is that a corrath?

“I have not had a suitable staff for it since before you were born.” She sensed his smile in the soft tone of his voice.

Elthwen scrambled to her feet, and barely suppressing her eagerness, entered the pool of soft light spilling around him.

“Bracklenut…not too green, not too dry.” He let out a short, muffled laugh. “This was an auspicious find.”

She dropped beside him on the log. Enveloped by the crystal’s light, she basked in its warmth spreading through her aching bones. Like a weight, her head defied all attempts to keep it upright. She rested it on his shoulder and fixed her gaze on the stone’s radiance growing in intensity. “How does it do that?”

As he slowly rotated the staff between his palms, the crystal changed from opaque white to pink and back to white again. “I am a ghalthrach,” he said simply. “The staff is but a conduit. It connects us—the corrath and me—and the two of us to the earth. By the grace of Nirmanath, we are now one with the current of life.” The light sputtered, nearly going out. “Ach! Perhaps I should have said, ‘We soon shall be one….’ We are both old and woefully out of practice. It will take us a bit of time to…. ” Focusing full attention on his task, he rolled the staff between his hands until the stone flickered back into luminescence.

Kathy Fischer-Brown has published four historical novels with Books We Love, Ltd. To find out more about Kathy and her books, please visit her at her Books We Love author page. For updates on Sword of Names and for further information, check out her website.