Totally against type, this year I have actually managed to keep one of my New Year’s Resolutions (so far.) I know! I didn’t think that was something that really happened either, but here we are.
So this year I promised myself that I was going to try and take up my drawing again. This is something I haven’t done since I was in secondary school, which is far longer than the ten years ago I would like to remember it being! I’ve regretted stopping for a long time, and I’ll admit that starting this blog has left me often wishing that I could draw something to illustrate my Ghosts & Gowns series, or just share some world-building ideas through pictures. And I always say that if you keep on thinking ‘I wish I could take that up-‘ then you owe it to yourself to at least give it a try!
Maps have been a part of the fantasy from even before Tolkien, and it’s easy to see why. They give a sense of the scale of a world the author has built, they give a sense of purpose and direction for the adventure – you can see where the started off from, where they are going and how far (literally) they’ve come. They’re also a great way to introduce little Easter Eggs and teasers for other stories; there was no reason for Our Heroes to travel to the Ice Palace in the Northern Wastes, but you can see it on the map and therefore you can wonder what that place must be like. Who lives there? Will we get to see it in another book?
As writers, I think that drawing maps for your story is incredibly helpful because doing so forces you to define your world and think about its logistics. How far is Point B from Point A and therefore how long is it going to take to travel? Is Country X to the north or the east of Country Y? Is the capital city surrounded by mountains, or a lake or is it on the sea? It also forces you to be consistent; if the map says that your city is on the coast, then we’re really going to notice if the story says it’s surrounded by mountains and no water in sight.
Now, you might think that this isn’t going to affect your story in any real way, but it comes into play more than you think.
For example, what’s the easiest way for people to travel? If people can’t simply walk to where they need to go then chances are that there are a lot of insular communities because people won’t bother. In which case your communities all need to have a distinct feel from each other. If travel is really easy and quick then there’d be a lot more intermixing between communities, so fewer variations. But then you can’t have a plot-point that rests on people not knowing what’s going on in another community because they surely would simply go and check?
To this end, I cannot recommend Jonathan Robert’s post on ‘Worldbuilding By Map’ highly enough. It is a great, practical guide to drawing a map and various things you’ll need to think about, from dividing up your countries, to where to put your towns and cities, via mountains, rivers and coastlines. I found it just so, so helpful, and I hope that you’ll get something out of it too.
For those who, like me, are unsure of their artistic talents in general, I also recommend ‘How to Draw Fantasy Art and RPG Maps: Step by Step Cartography for Gamers and Fans’ by Jared Blando. It’s a great book, easy to use and full of inspiration. For every common feature of a fantasy map, he includes multiple variations to pick from, so you never feel that all your maps have to look the same. The book covers landscapes and landmarks, such as towns, or ancient ruins or magic portals (which I had not even considered could be marked on a map until it was suggested!) as well as heraldry customs, marking political allegiances and various lettering too. If you’re drawing maps for your stories at all, I definitely recommend checking this book out.
The impetus for taking up map-drawing may, I confess, seem a little silly. Mind you, I think a lot of what writers get up to can seem a little silly when you say it out loud!
Anyway, I have this idea of a character’s home, called Herle’s Howe for reasons we’ll get into in another post, which in every appearance is in a completely different location. One time it might be on the side of a mountain, and another it could be an island in the middle of the sea, and again it could be sitting in the middle of a swamp, or in a clearing in a forest. I currently envision that this could be something of a running gag throughout the story; no one knows why this house moves around constantly, and the character never ever provides an explanation for this. Since the character is so strange even for fairyland, I would like to experiment with various ways that he can be distinguished as decidedly weird for a world of magic.
The thing is, I’m not sure if it will work out, so by drawing little maps of possible surroundings for Herle’s Howe, I can see if there’s enough variety to make the changes really stand out and be interesting for the reader every time they encounter the house. If I can’t think of enough settings that feel like they would fit the character’s temperament, then I’ll abandon the idea, of course. That’s always the risk of an experiment. Still the idea’s currently still making me laugh a little!
When I’ve drawn some other options, I’ll add them to this post, but here is my first piece of drawn artwork that I have done in over 15 years!
Do you have any tips on drawing fantasy maps? Please feel free to share them int he comments below!
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!
Found this post interesting or helpful? Check out the rest of the series here.
If readers take nothing else away from this series, I really hope you take any this top tip: When reading anything, keep a stack of post-its and a pen next to you at all times. As I read, any phrases or turns of speech that I really like get jotted down and stuck to the bookshelf next to my chair. Later they get collected and stuck into a note book so I can’t lose them. Continue reading “Fantasy Idioms: A Shortcut to Writing a New Language!”→
Greetings Everyone! I’ve been noticeably absent from the Interweb World for a few weeks, and what have I been getting up to in all this time? Well, those of you with sharp eyes may notice I’ve been fiddling around with the layout of this blog but otherwise? Nothing. Shocking isn’t it? You feel like it’s not something you can admit to; it’s probably Not Allowed even!
The word ‘Nothing’ has all these negative connotations, not limited to being the name of the threat in The Neverending Story. But I’d like to talk about two ways in which I feel writers – and indeed everyone else – should view ‘Doing Nothing’ as a good thing. Continue reading “In Defence of Doing Nothing”→
So I’d like to start this post with a special dedication to all my friends who live with me and my writing. Friends are the un-celebrated support network behind any artist or writer and we just don’t give them enough thanks!
This post was born out of the following, I swear I’m not making this up, real-life conversation:
Me: Hey, I’ve just had a thought
Me: What are fairy cities like? What do they look like?
Me: I mean, do they have large cities? Do fairies have a social structure that would support that? Because they seem like they’d be ‘Bigger Is Better’ people-
Friend: … Cameron…
Me: – but they also seem to have a pretty feudal society and that only really allows for kind of small ones. And would they be too territorial for close-quarters living?
Me: And what do the buildings even look like? Do you think they’d be all tall and ethereal? Or one story high and made out of sturdy rocks? Like super-defensive?
Friend: …It’s gone midnight, Cameron. Talk to me later, yeah?
To all of my friends who bear with my madness; your patience is noted and appreciated. I thank you all.
Anyway, this post is going to look at world-building from one very specific direction; choosing a specific end result – in this case the final ‘look’ of Tir Na Nog’s cities – and working backwards to figure out what would need to exist to allow this to happen.
I’m a big believer in looking at a lot of different approaches to world-building, and trying out all of them. Even if you find this helpful, please don’t feel like you need to use this for everything you go on to build or indeed feel like it should work in all scenarios, because it probably won’t. Different approaches force you to ask different questions and that’s what’s fantastic about world-building. Go crazy and try everything you can get your hands on! The end result will be much better!
Why Think About Cities This Much?
So, Cameron, why are you giving any though to what the cities of the fairies look like?
I hear you ask.
Well, fantasy fiction has historically had a bit of a leery relationship with the idea of cities. They tend to feature cities as far off in the distance, mentioned and referenced maybe but only entered, if ever, during a fraught quest or at the climax. (Also, is it just me that keeps finding cities as being almost exclusively where The Bad Guy™ lives, rather than normal places of normal people with lives and businesses?) So the focus is never on the city itself as a functioning population hub but as the place where the action happens. And for good reason.
Fantasy tends to really like to base itself in medieval feudal societies and they don’t have the sort of social structure to maintain big cities like the modern world does. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t cities, but by our standards they’d be pretty small, and they are rare and they usually are the result of very specific factors coming together, like the joining of two or more main roads, or a crossing place on a river…
Mostly the population lived in smaller towns and villages; the larger your settlement is, then the more people living in it, and the more food it needs to keep going. Since the middle of a settlement is not where the good agricultural activity is, that means that the ‘hinterland’ (the land which is essentially there specifically to feed the town) gets larger too, but now the distance food has to travel from the outskirts of that hinterland inwards is larger, and after a while it’s not worth it. Pre-industrialisation, goods just take a lot longer to move than we can easily conceive of now – a horse and cart laden down with food can travel around 12 miles in a day, according to my research, assuming that there aren’t highwaymen or robbers or flooding…
Plus, once you get a lot of people into a single area, you need to keep the peace between them, dispense justice, collect revenue to keep the public buildings and infrastructure maintained and pay the people who are keeping that peace I just mentioned. It’s a lot more complicated than just shoving people together and calling it a city. There’s hierarchies to sort out and maintain and differentiate. The priorities of the society will shape the city’s major centres – hospitals, libraries and universities, banks and markets, churches and temples, public parks, etc. Trade routes to be established so goods can come in and out, and industrial areas to develop and spread. And then of course cultures change and develop…
No, wait! Don’t panic! I know it sounds complicated but that’s not really a bad thing! You’re a writer after all! You get to be the boss of this world, and you get to make those decisions now! Just be aware that you might need to think about these things if you want to go into detail.
It’s worth stressing at this point that some writers do not go into detail, and that’s not necessarily going to impede your narrative at all.
In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien has the Fellowship rest at the city of Caras Galadhon, the largest city of Lothlórien. What do we know about it? Well, it’s built up in the massive mallorn trees, on platforms connected by stairways and ladders, and it’s lit by “many lamps”. That’s not a whole lot of description of a major city. We get some highlights of important places; the fountain, the mirror of Galadriel and there’s a palace that Galadriel and Celeborn live in, but none of them are described in that much detail. And did that affect the plot at all? Nope!
So please don’t read this post and panic because you haven’t really described your city (if you have one). Especially if the plot is just glancing through it, the city doesn’t have to matter all that much. Books are there to tell stories with words, they aren’t a visual medium like comics or film where designing a set is vital for the whole narrative to work.
I personally made the decision to tackle the idea of fairy cities. I haven’t read about a lot of them and I really wanted to take the opportunity to really think one out. I like a challenge and it’s something that is potentially distinctive in my writing. I don’t even know if they are going to be a major feature, but I know I want to give them a try. I want to see how the cities built by fairies – who are not and never have been human and who have had very limited and mostly rural experiences with humans – would be different from our own. I wanted to experiment to see how their political structures would affect their physical surroundings. What would be the same and what would be alien to us?
You will have your own ideas which are different and unique and you’ll want to play to those strengths.
What Buildings have to do with People?
OK, so architecture says a lot about the people who built it. It says a lot to those people as well, actually. Before the rise of literacy among the general population in Europe, architecture was the main way that ideas and concepts could be spread to the masses.
There’s a reason that the Catholic Church built those huge cathedrals with their stained glass windows depicting Biblical scenes and lessons, and (pre-Reformation times) were decorated inside and out with painted statues and huge murals also depicting important stories and ideas: Heaven, Hell, Saints and Angels protecting the innocent and punishing the wicked, Devils are bad and do bad things, what the major sins are and what happens to those who succumb to temptation.
You get the idea.
Also buildings reflect the changing power dynamics and attitudes of societies too.
This bit is grossly over-simplified, I’m sorry, and I should stress that I am not a qualified architectural historian or anything of the kind!
The Renaissance saw a revival of what became known as the Neo-Classical style of architecture, which reflected the period’s renewed interest in Greek and Roman culture, ideas and society. The ‘Middle Ages’ (as they were now called, since people had clearly lived beyond that age and into a new one) were despised as the ‘Dark Ages’, a time without all this clearly superior Classical literature and scholarship of science. The backlash to that dismissal was then seen in the rise of the Neo-Gothic architecture of the Later Victorian Era (timings approximate) where the revival of medieval ‘gothic’ architecture was used to celebrate the poetically reimagined vision of the Middle Ages as a more exciting and untamed era of adventure and great deeds – just as the Europeans imagined their own actions and innovations to be; exploring new lands and conquering mountains, seas and desserts instead of dragons and griffins.
What I’m building up to here is the idea that architecture is a reflection of the people who design it, and therefore these two things need to match. If you give me a peace-loving society with no recent conflicts, but everyone lives in well-built and defensive castles and fortified towns, I’m going to have some serious questions. Which could be answered with something interesting like ‘There was a war recently and no one wants to talk about it, but that’s why they love peace so much’ or ‘The masses are told that they are a peaceful nation, but the Powers That Be are war-lords and are preparing for a terrible war.’
See? Inconsistencies can add up to fascinating world-building on their own. A war-faring culture that lives in undefended settlements might simply be terrifyingly good warriors, like the Spartans who had no walls to defend their towns because their army was amazingly effective.
So about these Fairies?
OK, so I always say this: When you sit down to do some world-building, start with what you already know, then work out from that. This approach has never let me down, because I stop focussing on the things I haven’t worked out and start focussing on all the things I’ve already figured out, which is both more positive for me as a person, and means I’m not figuratively looking at a blank page, but at a puzzle piece which just has some gaps in it. (Sometimes big gaps, but they’re still just gaps, right?)
What did my image of my fairies tell me?
My version of fairies are based on the Early Medieval folktales’ version; not demigods like the pagan Celtic peoples knew them (Tuatha Dé Danann), but more powerful and interesting than the little house spirits the Church would make them into by the time of Shakespeare (he describes them as being small enough to hide inside acorns when frightened). The best concise description I have ever found for fairies as I pictured them comes from (who else?) Terry Pratchett, in Lords and Ladies:
Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.
The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.
No one ever said elves are nice.
Elves are bad.
That’s it, that’s it right there! Those are my fairies! Beautiful but cruel, interested in beautiful things but not with lives, covetous and jealous and magical. That old phrase about a person who could “kill you or kiss you”? Those are my fairies.
I knew that they would have an elf king and a fairy queen, that each ruler had their own distinct court; so they’d need palaces. I knew that they liked music and dance for the sounds and the colour and the movement, that they liked theatre and the inherent falseness of the magic of the stage; so they’d have large public venues to enjoy them in. I knew that they would have big parties to celebrate and show off in, so some big open spaces to “dance upon the green” would need to be incorporated.
But there’s another side I needed to conceive of. I knew that all the glitter of my fairies would be – not hiding exactly, but definitely distracting from – another, darker set of priorities. I knew that they would collect lives like some people today collect action figures – to be kept on a shelf and displayed for pleasure but never ever used. That they would consume more than mere food, and that they would barter in dark secrets and blood-stained memories. I knew that they would craft beautiful artworks and terrible weapons in the same shops, and sell lucky potions and deadly poisons in the same markets, and not always tell you which it was you were buying, because they’d get a kick out of watching you take a gamble with your own life and lose.
So now I needed to think about what aesthetic best fitted that sort of culture.
So About Those Cities?
These days with the wonders of the internet, whenever I need to find a specific ‘look’ to fit an amorphous concept, I use Pinterest, but any other way you have for finding lots of images will work just as well! Go forth, scramble around and collect every single imagine that strikes you as fitting. They don’t have to match, they don’t have to be exactly fitting. You’ll go through them later and throw out the ones that don’t work anymore, or find patterns you didn’t even realise you were tracing out in these little snippets.
I have a whole set of photos cut out of old magazines at home which are literally just windows and doors and I am reliably informed that they have no visible common aesthetic at all. They do. They are the doors I think belong in a character’s house, which is large and has a lot of different types of rooms, like any large old house, and it was only later that I realised that they were also the doors into different realities…
Anyway, I went away and looked at lots of pictures of buildings. Lots of them. And finally I found something that really worked for these fairies: Gothic Architecture! … Sort of…
So, if you’ve ever been inside a Gothic cathedral the first thing you’ll probably have been struck by is all those massive windows. They’re huge and (or at least they were) filled with coloured glass, and they have these amazing spiders’ web of stone and lead running between all these pieces? I’m fascinated by Gothic stained glass windows, they’re just so pretty…
But the thing is, Gothic architecture can be beautiful and romantic and intricate and absolutely full of tiny details and little carvings that just add so much… but they are also really sinister too. At least to me. Like, there’s a reason why Gothic architecture is associated with vampires and evil spirits and malevolent magics too. Those walls are really tall, and they just loom over you, and all the angles come to sharp points of stone that catch the light and throw claw-like shadows everywhere, and the halls are full of these statues that may or may not be watching you, right? I love visiting old cathedrals, but sacred ground or not, you will never pay me enough to stay inside one overnight. Nope, not happening! Nuh-uh.
So I started to imagine an entire city based off of the sort of design that went into a Gothic Cathedral. All that grand sense of height and looming presence, filled all over with stained glass caught up in these intricate webs of silver-lead and impossibly fine stone, throwing glittering points of coloured light everywhere. All those sharp-edged columns and pointed arches upon arches to build a ceiling like a ribcage over top of huge, echoing, cavernous halls. Lots of wide spaces, yes, but lots of twisted shadows too, that you aren’t sure are occupied or not…
And like the real cities of old, lots of hungry people living tightly together with not much food… and there you are, all alone…
Thanks for reading this post, I know fantasy architecture is a weird topic!
If you liked this and found it helpful, check out the rest of the series here.