So you want to write a book and you need a world to go into it. Where on earth do you start, and what do you need to think about?
When I started out designing a world I could place my stories into, I quickly developed a system which I hope will be useful to other aspiring writers. First, look at what ideas are already out there and see what works for you, then look at your own ideas and which ones you feel are the strongest and most interesting or original, and finally put these things together and locate what else you need to come up with to glue it all into coherency.
So if I were to be totally honest, I’m still in two minds about whether I gave myself a huge handicap right off the bat. I suppose time will tell and all that, but the more I struggle with keeping my ideas tonally consistent, the more I suspect that there was an easier way to do this…
Firstly, I had a whole lot of characters that were straight out of the dark and grim world of the old folk-stories I had grown up listening to, and original characters who fitted in with them. Fairy queens who steal children and entrap the unwary men; giants that eat people; river spirits who drown people. Curses which are broken by daring deeds and enormous personal sacrifice, and blessings which are only useful in the hour of darkest need. That sort of thing.
Ok, good start. Classic fantasy set-up right there.
This meant that I couldn’t simply set it straight into the ‘real world’, especially in modern times, as that would take me into the world of urban-fantasy and for a fairy queen to fit in there, she’d need to be a very different person. She would probably have needed to have a dating website that ensnares the unwary man looking for a casual hook-up but unaware that he was flirting with a much more deadly power. That sort of thing.
And there are several authors who have done this to great effect and I’ve really enjoyed a lot of urban fantasy, but since that wasn’t the sort of story I wanted to write, it was best not to set myself up for it.
But I didn’t want to divorce these characters completely from the real world either. I wanted to have ‘normal people’ interacting with them and responding to them, so I couldn’t just go off into a different world like Middle Earth or Westeros. Hmmm…
Riding in to the rescue, for me at least, was folklore. I know that folklore and fantasy as a genre has a reputation for being somewhat backward looking. It’s always set in a world that is based on Medieval Europe, at least to some extent, and many of the customs, values and characters are lifted from those histories wholesale.
But folklore is, at least to me, a reflection of people struggling with real-world issues of the day, and most of those issues haven’t really left us. We still have dangerous people who hide in the shadows of poorly lit back-streets. We still teach our children not to talk to strangers, and for good reasons. We still need to be suspicious of people who offer us bargains which are simply too good to be true and therefore probably are. Life hasn’t moved on that much.
This was what gave me hope that I really could find a way to bring fairytale monsters and heroes into a recognisable, normal human world, with a bit of tweaking. With that in mind, I set about digging through a variety of stories about magic and men living together to see if I could find inspiration. As I have said before, strong ideas last longest, so looking through older stories for strong concepts is, I feel, a great way to find good building blocks to begin construction.
I needed a way to have a world of magic and a world without it in the same story. I needed ideas for how to travel between worlds. I needed a sense of how long was reasonable for any travel to take. Physical and magical practicalities to pin everything else on to. Fortunately these problems are new or unique to me either, and there was plenty of ideas and solutions out there to draw from.
Myth and Legend
Back when I was researching my thesis in the Anglo-Saxon conversion to Christianity (it’s much more hilarious than you might think, honest!) I uncovered several articles on the Anglo-Saxon superstitions surrounding why there were monsters in the human world.
In Saxon folklore, there was a belief in two worlds; the world of men which we currently inhabit and an Other world filled with magical and supernatural beings. There were gateways between these two worlds which were most closed in the clear light of day, and most permeable when you couldn’t see very well: at night when it’s dark, in heavy rain or fog, or when travelling over large spaces of land or water when you lose sight of all landmarks which tie you to home. There were also seasonal variations, with solstices being generally a good time to assume that things were able to cross between the worlds.
Folktales and Fireside stories
When I was a small child adults around me would tell stories of people who tried to sail to Wales or Ireland and lost their way, ending up in the land of the Fairies by mistake, or how people would lost their way on the mountainsides, be taken in by kindly (or not so kindly) goblins and may or may not be seen ever again. I think she was trying to teach me about the importance of properly navigating and not getting lost in bad weather, as her elders had doubtless done before her, and it had always left me with a sense that fairyland was a place one really could just stumble into, given various factors.
Of course there are also a whole slew of stories that feature more concrete doorways between this world and worlds of magic; fairy rings, caves, sacred clearings in the woods or abandoned buildings have definitely all been used to great effect before.
Related to that, as I started reading more widely into the folkloric traditions of the British Isles and what other people had to say about the Fair Folk and the land they lived in, Tir na Nog, I found that another aspect kept cropping up again and again. Many storytellers told tales which said that Tir na Nog was not bound to such human concepts as physical space or time. One storyteller I heard spoke of ancient times when kings would pay the fairies grand and elaborate tributes because Tir na Nog’s gateways could open up wherever they wanted and, if angered or not appropriately bribed, they might be persuaded by one’s enemies to transport their army right past your defences to where you were most vulnerable.
(For anyone wondering, these tales tend to contain some dishonest trickster stealing one or more kings’ gifts and what I can only call ‘Hijinks’ promptly ensue until everything can be resolved happily. Having said that, there are also the more tragic versions in which the theft of the tribute is the reason given for people getting turned to stone, or changed into the animals which are eaten by their tribe’s feast, or whole regions being flooded, giving rise to oddly-shaped seas of lakes, so it doesn’t all end happily…)
The idea of magic messing around with time has enjoyed a wide forum of employment since the days when bards first used the concept. Time, as we were told so wisely by Ford Prefect, is an illusion (Lunchtime doubly so.) It’s hard enough to keep track of with modern time-pieces, and so it is no surprise that magic messing around with time was a common theme when telling tales of fairies and magic lands.
C.S. Lewis has probably written the most famous modern example with the Chronicles of Narnia, in which (for anyone who might possibly have missed it) however much time you spend in Narnia – be it an afternoon, several months or a lifetime – no time at all will have passed in this world.
Traditionally, the results of such magic are less fun; one might join the fairies in dancing and drinking for one night, only to find that a year and a day has passed for men and your friends think you dead and murdered. In the darker-still versions, one tends to find that your best friend who saw you last has been tried and executed for your murder, usually with you returning only after that friend has died, for maximum dramatic impact. In others, you might spend a night with the fairies only to find that over a hundred years have passed, your friends are all dead, and the world is completely changed and incomprehensible to you now. Again there are darker versions of this tale in which it seems that fairies either can or choose to only flout time for so long and all those decades you were missing for catch up with you at once and you age and crumble to dust in a few minutes. Yes, folklore did it before Indiana Jones and yes, it still sounds like a horrible way to die to me…
Magic that can take you anywhere has been around for forever too, from magic carpets to disapparation. But as a child the first examples I had was a whole series of different stories with doors which could open instantly onto wherever you wanted to go. Mr Benn, for example, with the door in the fancy dress shop, or Morwen’s house in the Enchanted Forest Chronicles. In this series, Morwen’s house has two doors, front and back. In theory. In reality, the back door opens to wherever Morwen wants it to, be it her library or her backyard. But only Morwen can command the door; it’s her house after all. This idea of portals which can only be commanded by one person really captured my imagination too.
My favourite example of squiffy time-and-space travelling used on a grand scale is in The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. In the land of Fantastica (I know they call it Fantasia in the film, but it’s Fantastica in the books, I swear!) the rule is that if you want to go somewhere, you just set off in any random direction and you will arrive where you wanted to go. But if you actually wanted to go somewhere else (subconsciously, say) you will end up there instead. I have yet to figure out how the children in Fantastica go to school when they have exams. Maybe I’m thinking about this too hard…
So, having collected all these different ideas I liked and had seen could definitely work in a narrative context by others, I boiled them all together in a strong brew of late-night tea and biscuits, left them to stew for a lunar cycle and dried it off in the raging sun of a British summer!
And now comes the harder parts; coming up with some ideas of my own and making them work. Inspiration is a great place to start, but sooner or later you have to make some decisions of your own and build your own world, not keep playing in other people’s sandpits!
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