When you write, you create worlds. That is a given. But speculative fiction goes a step further – it creates new worlds, parallel realities to the ones in which we live. We get to play god – we create geographies, cultures, climates, histories, people. These worlds have their own structures and different physical laws; very often, in fantasy, the presence of magic. For a writer like me, world building is almost the best fun there is.
Of course, there’s no one way to do this. Methods and worlds will vary as much as writers do, and even particular writers will use different techniques in different books. The first fantasies I wrote were the Books of Pellinor quartet. Here I adopted the Tolkien method: my continent of Edil-Amarandh is located in an imaginary deep past of real world history. It stretches from polar regions to desert, which allowed me to explore other cultural traditions besides the standard northern European model: I drew ideas from texts as various as Gilgamesh and Persian court poetry to those of Lapp shamans.
I drew maps, I created languages (only enough for the narrative, although I do possess a couple of slim dictionaries), I wrote histories, I invented culinary traditions. I took enormous pleasure in inventing densely footnoted scholarly appendices, although I was very taken aback when some readers wrote to me, frustrated that they couldn’t locate the books I had cited. (I sometimes think those appendices are the best fictions I have written.)
The next books I finished – Black Spring and another story tentatively called The River and the Book – have no maps and no appendices. Like the Pellinor quartet, they draw from actual histories and literatures. Black Spring takes its structure from Wuthering Heights, but its geography and history come from Albania, inspired in particular by the great Albanian writer Ismael Kadare. This time, because of the kind of book it is, I wasn’t too worried about epic history: what I wanted was a 19th century world which is divided between an urban, sophisticated south and a rural north. The River and the Book, a short, lyrical novel, is set in a time that is recognisably 21st century – there are mobile phones and digital cameras – in a geography and culture that is like Central Asia.
In each case, the world I imagined evolved organically from the story I told. The map of Edil-Amarandh started with a dot on a page, when I realised I had to keep track where my characters were. I filled it out as the story expanded: as I discovered, epic fantasy demands epic georgraphy and epic history. Gothic fantasy, like Black Spring, didn’t need that sort of detail: I needed vivid characters in a vivid landscape. And The River and the Book, which is a story about loss and love and surviving change, is much the same: what counts is the emotional lives of the characters.
All these different approaches have in common one thing: the desire to make these different worlds real for readers. In the end, this is a function of the story-telling itself. Whether the world is an assumed background, as in Black Spring, or whether it’s filled with extra-narrative detail, as with the Pellinor books, it has to exist concretely in a reader’s imagination, and, most importantly, as the reality through which the characters move and breathe and live. God, as the novelist Gustav Flaubert said, is in the detail.
In fact, some of the most sensible tips I’ve ever read for creating fantasy worlds come from a writer who didn’t write fantasy at all: the great W.G. Sebald. Sebald was not only one of the most significant writers of the past couple of decades, but was also a teacher. Last week, David Lambert and Robert McGill uploaded some of his notes to students.
Sebald says, for instance: “You need to set things very thoroughly in time and place unless you have good reasons [not to]. Young authors are often too worried about getting things moving on the rails, and not worried enough about what’s on either side of the tracks. “ Absolutely! You must imagine your world in its totality: not just the magnificent buildings or towering moutains, but the tiny flowers next to the path. Do they have a name? What colour are they? Or: “Meteorology is not superfluous to the story. Don’t have an aversion to noticing the weather.” Weather affects us in real life all the time: don’t forget its effects on your characters. And this is an important note: “‘Significant detail’ enlivens otherwise mundane situations. You need acute, merciless observation.” This is perhaps even more crucial for fantasy: it’s the telling, concrete detail that creates the “willing suspension of disbelief” that allows a reader to enter your world. To invent new worlds, you need to look very hard at the one you live in.
His tips are worth reading in full, but some of them apply in spades to fantasy. And don’t forget the last one: “Don’t listen to anyone. Not us, either. It’s fatal.”
Thank you so much to Alison for this very interesting blog post and you can buy Black Spring here and bookshops now!