For anyone who likes hearing about the creative process, this is a piece on how I went about writing my latest book, Deed of Empire. If you don’t like reading about the creative process, I don’t know what to tell you — I’m going to do it anyway.
When I wrote my first epic fantasy, Duster, I kept the world intentionally small. I was coming from urban fantasy, and I quickly learned that in secondary world fantasy, you had to make up every single place the characters traveled to. It was exhausting. I also just wanted to keep the worldbuilding under control, as it was my first time building a complete world. But by the time I started writing Deed, I had plenty of worldbuilding under my belt, including two more Duster books I wrote on my own and The Seelie Wars, a complete trilogy written with Jane Yolen. I was also simply a more confident writer, closing in on nearly a million words written. So, for Deed I wanted to do something different.
I have always been a fan of big epic fantasies, and I figured it was high time I wrote one. I wanted to go about it a specific way, too: I wanted to do the worldbuilding first.
This was a new idea for me. I had always started with at least a semblance of a plot, maybe a character or two. I at least had a scene in my mind, a good opener or an intriguing end scene. After a few chapters, I would start filling in the world I was working in, but I never felt the need to do a bunch of worldbuilding before putting a single word down. But for an epic, I felt I needed a big, complex world, one that couldn’t be shorthanded into the story. I wanted a world with weight, with heft, with a reality already baked into it before I began writing.
First thing, I needed a concept, a starting point. I decided on “What if the Vikings were within raiding distance of the Levant?” This has little to do with where the book ended up, but it started the process.
I drew a map, a very rough map. Just a coastline vaguely resembling the Levant and a land to the north across a big body of water. From there, I began to think about how my Levant and Norse homelands came to be. I decided that the Levant was originally a part of a large empire to the east, but when the Vikings started raiding, the large empire pulled a Normandy, and gave one of their provinces away to the Vikings. But I didn’t want the Levant to be Vikings, so I decided it was a charismatic Viking leader who had brokered the deal, and when he died (betrayed maybe?), everything fell into chaos. But why didn’t the large empire just take it back over? Because, I decided, their empire collapsed soon after. But I didn’t want chaos over the whole continent, so I decided on a very specific collapse: a take over from within, slave soldiers revolting and taking over like the Mamluks.
So, now I had a base history for my main area. But it wasn’t nearly done. I placed this bit of history three centuries before my story starts, so I had a lot of history both before and after to make up, as well as an entire world outside of these few entities I had invented.
First, I decided fill in the rest of the world. I extended the Viking land westward, but broke it up with mountain peaks. Decided that long ago, their society had split and a new society had grown in the northern forests. I split the Levant into three kingdoms who had been in near constant conflict since the withdrawal of their overlords three centuries ago. I created the Far Flung Road, a conduit to the southern empires, mysterious kingdoms far to the south. Put a trading city-state at the crossroads of it. Created a giant desert, filled it with nomads. Made a western empire, gave them a time when they had nearly taken over my northern kingdoms, and even threatened the empire of the east.
I was layering societies, letting them conquer each other, trade, exchange ideas, leave traces of themselves in different parts of the world. Each society had their customs, their gods, their traditions, their art and architecture, but they were all colored by their history of conquering and being conquered, assimilating and being subsumed. Gods were exchanged, histories adopted, tales told and retold until they only barely resembled their original form.
It was a great deal of fun. But eventually, I had to start writing the damn thing. Turns out, that was fun, too.
Instead of trying to come up with a plot, I came up with characters, four to be exact, though only three made it to Deed (the fourth is in the upcoming second book). I chose four characters in four different societies and plopped them down into the world. Began writing their stories and wondering how they were going to connect. Now, the beauty of writing, is that you can always go back and pretend you wrote it that way the first time. After I connected the tales, there was a bit of clean up to do in the earlier bits, but honestly, not that much. It’s amazing the work the subconscious does while the conscious is frantically tapping away at the keyboard.
A couple final notes. I read an essay once on Tolkien’s use of history in Lord of the Rings. How he layered known history, mythic history, and unknown history into Middle-earth. I tried to do that in Deed. One of the things I played around with a lot was the different architecture. The buildings in the trading city of Pallasoldi tells the tale of the many different cultures it hosts within its walls, and also the brief time it was occupied by invaders. In the three kingdoms of Eidannia, much of their architecture is built on the old bones of the more advanced Hyssan empire that abandoned them. And even older than that, there are ruins whose origin is not known — a tumbled down circle fort in the Vedland highlands; an ancient wall little more than earthworks now encircling the town of Three Bridges; in one of the far away southern empires, the remnants a giant statue to an ancient god.
All of this serves (I hope), to add to the reality of the world. Make it resonate. Because that is the aim (I believe) of all good fantasy: make it resonate with the reader as much the real world. Maybe more. The real world provides no relief from its horrors. A book, you can always put down for a time. And in fantasy, the good guys sometimes win.