Guest blogger Steven Poore has kindly agreed to contribute the latest in our series of articles about writers and the worlds that they create for their stories. Steven is nothing if not versatile, writing science fiction and fantasy, novels and short stories. He is the author of two series: the epic fantasy Melassar’s Curse, and space opera The Empire Dance. A founding member of the Sheffield SF&F Writers’ Group, Steven also organizes the popular SFSF Social Events.
The first volume of Malessar’s curse, The Heir To The North, will be released by Kristell Ink Books on all platforms in October 2015.
WELCOME TO MY WORLD: WORLDBUILDING AND THE HEIR TO THE NORTH
by Steven Poore
One of the hardest jobs in writing – in writing epic fantasy in particular – is to make your secondary world stand out. What’s going to make the reader want to immerse themselves in your creation? What’s going to make them remember that city, that battle-blasted plain, that castle, over any other?
One method might be to make your story’s landscape so startlingly different that it can’t help but stand out. Kameron Hurley’s Mirror Empire takes this approach, for example – acid nightmare visions of semi-sentient walking trees, blood-drinking thorn fences, fork-tongued bears and glowing everpine weapons. It takes a fair bit of getting used to and runs the risk of alienating the reader rather than drawing them in, but it can be enormously effective too. Mirror Empire certainly lives up to Angry Robot’s “SF/F/WTF” mission statement and it was a fascinating read because of that approach.
I took a different route in my own work. Heir To The North is an unashamedly old-fashioned epic fantasy: a quest to overthrow an ancient curse, complete with dragons, sorcerers, a handsome prince, and a protagonist who has a lot to learn…
The secondary world created for this book came from two places: from stories, and from real-world places. But while I wanted enough detail to immerse the reader in the world, I didn’t want to drown them. That’s why, for example, only a small part of the world itself is ever explored. Other parts may be mentioned in passing, but only that. The same goes with cities like Galliarca and Hellea, where there’s hopefully just enough detail to let the reader visualise the place.
Rod Duncan (The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter) has demonstrated in his workshops simple methods to provide enough description to hook a reader’s imagination. I’ve since realised that in some respects I was doing a similar thing: each place that Cassia visits has one or two points of focus, things that I hope will stick in the reader’s mind and allow them to build up their own picture of the location. For example, in the description of Galliarca’s cramped mede (based heavily upon Marrakesh’s souks) Cassia discovers that “a small and anonymous door set into a long, blank wall had been left open to reveal a great, vaulted airy temple, the glazed columns suffused with sunlight.” Malessar’s house in the city looks inward onto a small, beautiful garden, framed by columns, again based on Moroccan architecture but never detailed to such an extent that I might be a columnist for Fantasy Homes & Gardens Magazine (a trait my editor has beaten out of me…).
Back in Hellea, the city’s great library, with musty cellars deep within the hilltop, is modelled on ancient Alexandria (and the name Hellea itself should start the Imperial Roman comparisons running). Far to the North, an abandoned watch-tower sits on the border of Caenthell, all dark, cold spaces around an overgrown yard, the crumbling walls manned by wraiths; and on the rocky moors only half-buried, broken floor tiles remain of the lost city of Gethista… you can see these places already, can’t you, even with these slight descriptions?
Meanwhile, as the daughter of a storyteller, and determined to make her own name in that field, Cassia’s journey across Hellea to find and defeat the warlock Malessar involves a lot of stories and histories. Some hold truth, others are… incomplete. While one or two of them were so important to the actual plot that I left them intact in the narrative, most of them were little more than incidental flavour.
For example Cassia proves her worth to the crew of the Rabbit by entertaining them with the tale of Pelicos the Illuminated – “The hero of Kalakhadze, of Stromondor, of the plains-built fortresses and more besides; the man who left a trail of broken hearts and enraged husbands in his wake.” Elsewhere, she recites the tale of “Pelicos, Pelicos the Brave, Pelicos Bedstealer with his sheets to the wind – the wind that had borne him away from the shores, and into the seas that took him to wife.” Neither story is ever actually told to the reader, but I bet that even from those short lead-ins you can construct your own version of my fictional rogue. Using Pelicos the Many-Named was a simple way to bring colour and depth to a story within a story that would otherwise remain untold; to do any more than that ran the risk of distracting the reader and bringing the plot to a standstill (as well as giving my editor a nervous fit…).
The stories narrated by Baum, Malessar and Arca weave in and out of Hellea’s history, containing both truth and fiction in their own way, and so I told them to Cassia (and the reader) through a mixture of dialogue and third-person description. You should get a deeper sense of Hellea’s history through them – but also a nagging suspicion that something has been left out. JV Jones’s protagonist in The Barbed Coil had to sift through layers of truth in the same way.– and that’s the space that I wanted to find for the reader in Heir To The North.
If I’ve succeeded in that, then Hellea, and Cassia’s quest to restore Caenthell, should come alive for you as it has been for me ever since I got lost in a series of narrow alleyways somewhere in the depths of the souks of Marrakesh…