Guest Blog: SUSAN BOULTON

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I’ve been gone for quite a while, but hope to do better in the future. To begin with, we have another guest blogger writing about her books and worlds. This time it is Sue Boulton, author of the gaslight fantasy Oracle, a fascinating mix of politics, religion, and romance. I had the pleasure of editing the book for Tickety Boo Press, and was much impressed by the way she brought all three of these together in her plot. You’ll find more information about Oracle and where you can buy it in the article below this one, but for now, let’s see what Sue has to say about constructing her worlds:

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WORLD BUILDING

A dear friend once told me there is a fantastical, built-from-the-ground-up world in every writer. Whether that world should see the light of day is another matter. SF and Fantasy, no matter which sub-genre, be it Hard SF, military, space opera, epic, steampunk, or—as in my case with Oracle—gaslight, more than any other form of creative writing depends on building a world. And the building of that world can swallow you whole. You can and do, at times, find yourself living in the belly of the shark, wondering how deep into its bowels you are going to travel and is it really necessary.

That is the crux of the matter isn’t it?

What is necessary?

Do you need to create a monetary system worked out in excel, for when your character is buying a pint of ale?

Do you need a complex transport system spread out across three A3 sheets on your dining room table to tell your reader that character Joe went from here to there?

Then there are clothes, footwear, houses, food, animals, shops, trades, religion, ships (space or otherwise), rivers, whole planets etc … and then there is the matter of weapons of all kinds and size. Just don’t get me started on swords. I spent three years of my life, off and on, researching the use and construction of pointy-tipped steel things for a novel that every now and then rattles the trunk it is buried in. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the research and the writing of the novel. But I feel it taught me more of what not to do and how to avoid being swallowed, and chewed to pieces by the create-a-world shark.

I have three lever arch files full of notes concerning this trunked novel, two art books full of sketches, photos, and a reference list of books a mile long. The novel itself is over 300,000 words in its current form. How much of my world building and research made it into the novel? I think about 50%. Way too much to be honest. It is a plodding blow-by-blow descriptive monster in all its glory. I wanted to show my world to my reader. I didn’t want them to see it with their own imagination. It was my world for goodness sake. There was no place for the readers’ interpretation of my world. My characters became lost in the detail and their story, which I still believe is a good one, totally obscured.

So I was determined that the next novel I wrote after the epic fail in the trunk would be different. It was: it was under-developed in its world building. I did not give the world a chance. I concentrated on my characters, their development and journey, not the blooming world they lived in. The novel is a fun read, but it is just a bare bones of a story and now lives alongside the heavyweight descriptive monster.

Which brings me to the writing of Oracle.

The character of Oracle was the first step. I wrote a good 5000 or 6000 words of Oracle’s story without detailing the world she lived in. I slowly began to create the other characters in her story and then, of course, I hit the teeth of the create-a-world shark. The story needed a setting. Do I take the plunge and create a medieval world, complete with all the trappings, close off the place from my readers’ imaginations again, or do I try a different world? One that would need research, a time and place I could control, but also one my readers could control as well in some respects?

I am lucky to live in a part of the country where the industrial revolution began, the behemoth that swept away the Olde England of myth and plunged country and people into the dark satanic mills and smoking chimneys, which Tolkien used as the basis for the final chapters in Lord of the Rings, with the hobbits returning home to the Shire to find that it has been despoiled and corrupted. Though most of the early foundries and industrial buildings of this revolution have now been re-clothed by nature, torn down or turned into flats, historical museums, art galleries and the like, the explosive pace of change that took place during that time has left a deep scar on the working class and politics of this country. And I wanted this to be the backdrop for Oracle’s personal story. I wanted to create a world that mirrored her inner turmoil. It also allowed me the freedom of using a technology base that most readers were familiar with. Say a stream train, most will have their own vision of such a beast. I know how I see the Northern Express in Oracle, but I know my readers might see it differently. I could channel my research into areas that I felt needed to be explained in my created world. Though at times I got carried away and self-trimmed. The narrative was also trimmed by my editor, Teresa. Especially my political debates, based on the encounters between members of the UK parliament both in the past and present. For the better I believe. Creating a world that makes sense to others besides you is a matter of letting go and that is not easy to do.

Teresa also encouraged me to include more about the religion in Oracle, as it is such an important plot element and it needed to be fleshed out. It had, I must admit, been at a times vague. Politics and mutilating characters I can do, religion for me, even a made up one is tricky. I suppose it comes from having, on my mother’s side a staunch Methodist background. My maternal grandfather was a Hellfire-and-brimstone Welsh Methodist preacher from a mining village background. And I found in my creating of the religion for Oracle, that both the good and the bad of my own experiences, with regards to the Church of England and Methodist churches crept into the narrative. I was reluctant to expand, but found in the end, as Teresa encouraged me to do, I needed to.

How much of the world I created for Oracle, which by the way only fills one lever arch file and one sketch pad, made it into the novel? 5% maybe 10% I think. I wanted the story to be character driven, but it needed a solid setting. A world created
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As for my novel, Hand of Glory currently out on submission. I chose to use the real world. That is a whole different kettle of fish as they say. For no matter how sure you are of your source of information, someone believes they know better. If it get published I am waiting for someone to say I turned the borough war memorial round to face the wrong way. No I haven’t. The statue of the Tommy used to face towards the train station, but it was turned round to face St Mary’s church when they built the new crown courts.

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