Sunday, July 1, 2012

Creating Worlds – part 1

I am busy preparing for a panel discussion at the Bayside Literary Festival. This year’s festival is The Art of Words and – being a speculative fiction writer – I’m involved in a panel about speculation and invention:

Creating Worlds: Real and imagined
Scotland 1561; Melbourne 2012; an almost-Chinese mediaeval kingdom; an alternate, undated universe. World-building is an integral part of historical and fantasy fiction. Attention to detail and accuracy are vital in the former; imagination and originality are the building blocks of the latter. Author and publisher Lindy Cameron interrogates historical novelist Jesse Blackadder, and fantasy and speculative fiction authors Alison Goodman, Narrelle M Harris and Tor Roxburgh to find out what makes their fictional worlds go round, what brings them to life, what makes them believable, and just how much reality goes into making something up.
2pm to 4pm
True South Brewery, $10
Food and drinks available for purchase

As part of my preparation, I’ve been revisiting the process I used to create the world in my new epic fantasy novel The Light Heart of Stone. For me, world building starts with people. I remember a panel I attended a few years ago at Conflux, Canberra’s science fiction and fantasy convention. Two writers, both men, were discussing the process of world building. One insisted that the only way to create a plausible world was to begin with the cosmological situation. It was that situation that would determine the length of the word’s day and the nature of the world’s atmosphere, which he saw as the starting points for world building. The other writer spoke about beginning worlds topographically and cartographically. I was impressed and intimidated in equal measure.

Systematic work like that always impresses, intimidates and revolts me. It appeals to that part of me that would like to analyse, categorise and order everything that exists and GET IT RIGHT: the part of me that can still imagine spending twenty years researching a single narrow subject for the pure joy of it. It repels me because I know I would never complete another book or anything else in life. It revolts me because it is so tight and prescriptive.

My world building is based on the idea that all worlds, including our own, are imagined worlds. That is, words are primarily mental: they are created by minds and exist in minds. I don’t dispute the existence of a physical world but I believe we construct more of that physical world than we realise.

So I build worlds with imagined peoples who relate to, perceive and sculpt the landscapes in which they live. I imagine a world by getting to know its people: who they are, what they believe, what they disbelieve, what sort of stories they tell, what’s tolerable for them and what they can’t cope with.

In the case of The Light Heart of Stone, I knew I wanted to write about a post-colonial, continental world and I decided to create two culturally distinct peoples. I set my story 1,000 years after colonisation because I was interested in the idea of post-colonial worlds as enduringly fragile societies.

I wanted to write about semi-nomadic indigenous people who have a custodial relationship to land. I invented a people and called them the Indidjinies because I liked the slippage from the word ‘indigenous’. I wanted to write about immigrant people with a proprietorial attitude towards talents, about people who see talents as exploitable resources. I gave these people a talent for companioning plants and animals and called them the Companionaris. Having given my immigrant people an effective monopoly, I wanted the indigenous people to have a balancing monopoly so I gave the Indidjinies title to the entire continent.

So, at the outset of my world building, I had two contrasting beliefs (custodial and proprietorial) and I had two powerful monopolies (in one case, ownership of land; in the other, control over the growth of plants and animals).

I asked myself: what happened in the beginning when the Companionaris arrived? What happened a few hundred years later? What happens when the novel opens 1,000 years post-colonisation? The answer became the novel.

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