L.J. MCDONALD ON CREATING THE WORLD OF THE SYLPHS
Author L.J. McDonald gives a behind the scenes look at the world building she's becoming known for.
|Recently, I was asked to write a guest blog for RT Book Reviews Magazine. I was given total freedom regarding length or topic, but the suggestion was made that readers like to hear about ‘behind the scenes’ stuff and could I write an article about world-building, since I seem to be becoming known for that. This is a bit of a stream of consciousness piece about that idea. They might have meant for me to write something along the lines of "world building, step one", but it doesn’t work that way for me.|
I like creating worlds. I read a lot of paranormal romance, and an awful lot of it is set in our world, only with something changed to make the author’s reality and extranormal characters work. I like these books. I really enjoy reading them, but I don’t think I’d ever really want to write that way myself. I do have short stories set in our world, and even plotted out a book I’ll write someday, but they’re all set in a community that I invented. That way I don’t have to worry about being busted on the details. You know, the little things, like getting the amount paid at a toll booth right, or even the location of the toll booth itself, or having the correct streets cross each other in a city or town. All those tiny details that can throw someone who knows the area totally out of the story if you get them wrong. In a way, for me at least, world-building is so much easier.
When I went to create the world of the sylphs, I wanted something completely unique. It is loosely based on medieval times, but only loosely. There’s a lot less filth in my world for instance, since who needs it? It’s fantasy. People are also longer lived than they were in actual medieval times, more along the lines of how long modern people live now, because then readers can understand and relate to them more. Plus I don’t have to go killing off my favourite characters from old age at thirty-five. I also have them speaking more like modern people would, though I do try and avoid most modern slang. I’ve heard that throws a few readers, but for me, inventing words for things throws me since I don’t know what they’re talking about. Personal preference, I suppose.
I’ve heard many times that there’s no original idea in writing and everything can be broken down into seven basic concepts. I’m not sure what those seven concepts are, but I tend do agree with that sentiment. What’s original is how you apply the ideas you have.
I’ve said in other blogs that the original base idea for the sylphs came from a mix of the Japanse Tengu and Rumplestiltskin, with some empathy written in. The Tengu, for those who don’t know, is a shape-shifting bird spirit known for having a big nose. Rumplestiltskin is a European folk story about a creature who loses his power when his name is spoken. Those ideas led to the origins of the battle sylph, who is a shape-shifter with immense power, but who is controlled by someone else. When I created them, I was playing around with the idea of taking perfectly ordinary women with no special powers at all, and giving them the absolute power in a relationship without changing anything about them. I wanted a relationship where the man can’t go saying that he’s stronger and knows better and she should just listen to him. I’ve seen a lot of that in books and it usually just makes me roll my eyes, unless it’s really well written. I also wanted them to be realistic woman and not the perfect beauties I also see in a lot of books. So I gave the battlers to the women of this world of mine, but I left the women themselves thought of as second class. The history of our world is too full of patriarchy for me to just leave it out. Which is also why Solie is so young in the first book. I just couldn’t see her being allowed to grow to full adulthood without being married. So while I left a lot of the dirt and grime and disease out, I was still influenced by the realities in our own world that I couldn’t see myself letting go. Short lives? Gone. Women’s rights? Can’t see it. Not until the battlers force it to happen.
I also played with the concept of empathy. I like writing empaths. Before the battle sylph series, I wrote a book with an empath in it that I hope will be on the shelf some day. That particular empath was so overwhelmed by his empathy that he couldn’t deal with it. He felt too much to be able to go near another person without pain. I enjoyed that extreme, but when I went to put empathy into the battlers, I decided to go to the other end of the spectrum, and created creatures who could feel emotions, but didn’t care about them. Doing this, I felt, would help to make the sylphs nonhuman. After all, no matter what they look like or who they love, they’re not human. Hopefully, they’re not so inhuman that someone’s icked out by them.
To help with this lack of humanity, I threw a few more things into the mix. Beehives. And dogs. Have you ever watched The Dog Whisperer? A lot of the things he says about how dogs think as pack animals went into the sylph creation. There’s also some elements of carp in there. Yes, carp are fish. They’re also known for not dying of old age. They just keep growing until something kills them. So do sylphs, though they’re hardier than most carp.
|I spent a lot of time entertaining myself thinking about how the world of the sylphs is actually put together, and I’ve spent a lot of time revising things in the books so that they flow well. If someone asked me the best advice for creating a world, I’d say ‘know everything that’s going on’. There are things I know about the sylph world that might or might not ever show up in a book, but do affect everything else that does. I know how many sylph breeds there are, how they set up their hives in their home world. I know how some battlers handle their loneliness there and where queens come from. I know the elevation of the mountains and the oxygen content of the air. I know exactly where sylphs fit in the food chain and why battlers have to be so lethally dangerous. I know how they were first trapped as slaves in the human world and what that world was like before sylphs arrived. I even know who the most dangerous battler in the world is, and I knew him all the way back in book one.|
I don’t like the idea of trying to write in the real world myself because I don’t want to have to research it so exhaustively in order to make it accurate. What’s accurate in the worlds I create is what I say is. It’s something like coming up with a jigsaw puzzle. You start with a few disparate pieces that don’t look like they match at all, and then you graft the rest of the pieces to create an all over picture that works, and the picture’s always growing. That’s another advantage to me in making a world over using ours with a few changes. Our world is set. You need to work within those limitations if you don’t want to throw everything out the window. In my world, I can change everything, for the things I set in place in the earlier books will have repercussions that echo on through the rest of them and require change. What can happen as a result of things I’ve done? I sit and think of those ‘what-ifs’, and sometimes I’m surprised, and the world evolves. Sometimes it’s world-shaking, and right now I’m thinking my way through something I introduced in one book that has consequences I never imagined when I first created it. Mess with the universe at your peril, for sometimes you uncover gods.
|Most of the sylph world’s in my head. I don’t write a lot of notes on things other than physical descriptions and ages of characters. Somehow putting it down in any form other than the book itself spoils it for me. It has to brew in my head until it comes out because I’m always adding to the mix. Because of this, I have to do a lot of rewrites to make sure I haven’t contradicted myself, but that seems to be the way my brain works (I had one screw-up nearly make it all the way through the entire production of The Shattered Sylph. It was the last run proof reader before it was printed who went ‘hey, this doesn’t work, it contradicts what you’ve set up’, and as a result, a certain floating structure went to a certain place while being carried by something other than the air sylphs who were originally doing it. That highly convoluted sentence doesn’t give anything away, does it?).|
When I’m world-building, it takes over my life. I have trouble focusing on anything else and no matter what else I’m doing, I’ve got ideas churning in the back of my head, getting stirred. That’s the big part. Coming up with a story and setting it in the world itself is almost easy in comparison. It’s all there. I just have to let someone loose in it and see where they go.
I never thought when I wrote the first three books of the sylph series that they’d be published. I was writing book five when book one was being reviewed by Dorchester to see if they wanted to buy it, and finished book four after the contracts were signed (I flipped the order of them after I started. Rumours aside, I really can do math). Now I’ve got books six and seven in mind and I feel a bit as though I am writing in the real world and can’t change anything because books one and two are out and book three isn’t far behind. I can’t contradict anything in them because I can’t go back and change things anymore. Books six and seven are going to be very different to write in a way because my world is no longer so fluid. It has roots set in stone now and in a way, that’s freeing. In other ways, it’s maddening.
Don’t contradict yourself is the one absolute rule of world-building though, so there I am. I like how much detail I have to work with though, because I did think those details through before I wrote the first book. It made The Battle Sylph richer, and now it’s saving my butt since I can’t change anything that’s already out. Figure it all out, whether it’s in notebooks or post-it notes, or sitting on a mental back burner. Know it even if you never say it, though I guess I’ll know if I’ve got people hooked when they come after me screaming to know what I meant with each thing I said I knew about the world of the sylphs. I will admit though that everything I have referenced there is something that does at least get mentioned in one of the seven books. I’m not that evil. Or maybe I am, since only three of them have been contracted for so far.
That’s about all I have to say about world-building, other than it’s so much fun that I have a half dozen worlds in my head waiting to come out and more drift by all of the time. Fantasy has the singular advantage in that you can do anything at all, so long as you justify how and why. I think the battle sylphs of Solie’s world are more than proof enough of that.
- L.J. McDonald