Today I’m thrilled to welcome a special guest to the blog — Craig Munro, author of the newly released The Bones of the Past, a dark fantasy epic in the flavor of Steven Erikson. Craig has been my guest before in the World-builders series (here’s a link to that article for the curious — a more in-depth expose on the nuances of his world, DnD style).
Craig has put together a lesson for fantasy writers, based on his world-building methods as he developed them through writing his book, so without further ado, I’ll let him take it away from here.
I am a complete fanatic of fantasy books and have been since my parents handed a copy of the Hobbit to their nine-year-old son who, until that moment, absolutely hated to read. I am also very much into gaming in all its forms, and a recovering MMO addict. I have worked in a variety of fields from government, to language instruction, to tech blogging, all while somehow earning a degree in molecular biology. I have also been fortunate enough to travel extensively. I have lived in nine countries in Europe, North America, Asia, and the Middle East, and have traveled to many more besides. It is my hope that my experience with different cultures and places in the real world has helped to enhance my imaginary one. I am forever indebted to my lovely wife Margo, my amazing sister Kirsty, and my friend Chris McArthur who have been my alpha readers and general sources of feedback and awesomeness.
Pantsing a world
I am an unapologetic pantser when it comes to writing. I do have ideas for later parts of my story of course, and I’ve even written some of them down in a semi-organized manner, but that’s not how I write the majority of my stories and it wasn’t how I created the world for my novel. For the most part, events or scenes occur to me and I jot them down in a frenzy before I can forget them. Often, I’m not even sure who is performing the actions I’m describing and I fill in names with placeholders. I have a whole stockpile of these story fragments sitting and waiting to be used. When I’m unsure of how to proceed with a specific section, I pull out my stack of notebooks or my story fragment scrivener file and I invariably find exactly what I’m looking for, already written and ready to go.
When I’m creating (as opposed to cleaning up stuff I’ve already written or assembling bits into a greater whole), I generally sit somewhere with a notebook and pen and just let anything at all come out. Some of it ends up being good, other stuff less so. But it never ever fails – within a couple minutes ideas start flowing out onto the paper. At times those ideas are influenced by where I am, who I’m with, or the music I’m listening to. Other times there’s no correlation whatsoever (or if there is one, it’s beyond my ability to recognize).
I truly believe that writer’s block doesn’t really exist. Creatives of all types have a tendency to judge themselves too harshly and block themselves. By taking away the computer and making my creative efforts much more clearly drafts (anything I write this way has to be transcribed at the very least, after all), it helps me take one step farther back and cut myself a little more slack – I haven’t felt blocked this way a single time since I started, and my world just continues to develop and expand.
For The Books of Dust and Bone — of which The Bones of the Past is the first installment — I spent upwards of four years writing about events and places in my own (totally undefined) fantasy setting before I decided to start working on an actual novel. I had ideas for world shattering events, for a massive independent city peopled by undead, and a dizzying variety of deities. I wrote out these stories as they came to me, not even realizing they were all parts of one epic story. It wasn’t until I wrote about the fall of Sacral (roughly a thousand years before the events of The Bones of the Past) that I realized how nicely all of these pieces fit together if I stretched out the time frame sufficiently (OK maybe not quite all of them).
I truly believe that writer’s block doesn’t really exist. Creatives of all types have a tendency to judge themselves too harshly and block themselves.
From there, I needed to extrapolate on the relative locations and culture of each country, with each nation growing organically out of the various characters I’d already written about. Characters and armies, wars and cataclysms that I had imagined (sometimes very roughly) were all I needed to work backwards. Battles, mages, and warriors gave me the countries and peoples — their names, clothing, armaments and magical abilities all helped flesh out their cultures, while the conflicts and alliances gave me the first indications of where these places could be located relative to each other.
At times details become clear immediately. At other times, I have to let things take shape on their own. The Books of Dust and Bone took root early in my writing with the title of a song that came on shuffle — The Forever People by My Dying Bride. Something about that title sparked my imagination and I ended up writing about a city of undead besieged by the living — Sacral (which takes its name from a bone — my time in med school wasn’t entirely wasted!) and its fall. Other aspects of the city took shape years later — the final form of the city and its architecture came to me while I was sitting outside a temple in Cambodia (Angkor Thom to be exact). Now the city I envisaged isn’t a copy of these ruins by any means, but it was the idea of the carvings everywhere, the religious iconography, and the massive statues that just fit. Similarly, the grand temple took shape while I was sitting with my notebook outside a very impressive temple in South Korea (Bulguksa Temple).
The characters are really the key to everything for me. While a large part of the world did spring up around the idea of Sacral, the story grew out of the people I was describing, out of their wants and desires. Some of the characters in my story are inspired by people I’ve met in my travels, others were inspired by some of the locations, real world local legends or even characters from role-playing games I played in my high school and university days (Skeg’s first incarnation was as an NPC in a Shadowrun campaign I was running). Again, each one takes shape in their own time.
The basic shape of the primary landmass came together on its own, without me needing to do much more than flesh it out and make sure the relevant countries all had borders in common. Sacral had been a neutral ground (and a lone source of water) at the heart of a wasteland and offered the only neutral ground between two larger neighbours. This became the heart of the first scribble of a map.
From there, I added in access to the seas, if they were a seafaring people, and generally had a little fun with experimenting a little based on how events were to play out. I made a couple of (very) rough drawings (I have absolutely no talent for that sort of thing). Then I had a succession of progressively more artistically talented friends redraw and refine the map culminating in the version attached which was drawn by none other than the amazing John Robin who is hosting me today! Each version not only improved in terms of quality, but also forced me to further define the world as a place.
It may seem counter intuitive to write the story before investing in the world building, but I feel that the reversal helped me put the story first instead of trying to shoehorn it into a setting that I had already detailed down to the tiniest detail. I now have a rich, detailed world where I can discuss history, theology and cultural preferences for many of the countries presented, all without having to deal with situations where even a minor change might have created a cascade effect where it became necessary to rejig half a continent, or worse, create inconsistencies in my setting (something that irks me in any speculative fiction). The story grew organically from the wants and desires of the characters I was describing and even manages to surprise me quite frequently when I realize where it’s going.
About Craig’s novel, The Bones of the Past, an exciting new fantasy epic:
The Night Guard walk the streets of the old kingdom of Bialta seeking out threats that are beyond the abilities of the common soldier. Nial is one such threat a girl changed into something other and on the hunt for human souls. Salt, a sailor recently rescued by the Night Guard, has been inducted into their ranks. He s a quick study, but as new threats multiply all around them, will he have what it takes to survive?
Bialta is not alone in its woes. Sacral, a city that vanished in the distant past, has reappeared where it once stood at the heart of the Wastes. Like many of Sacral s people, Maura is content living a quiet life, ignoring the outside world. But she finds herself desperately fighting to save her home as war comes to the city returned.
Meanwhile, across the Great Desert, creatures are stirring. Carver, the last living master of the magic known as fleshcarving, has won the support of the tyrant of Tolrahk Esal. Together they will unleash his twisted creations to sweep across the land and forever disrupt the balance of power.
In this epic tale, there is no good and evil. Armies march, demons feed, and deities unleash their powers on a world that will never be the same.
You can get Craig’s book in your local Chapters or Barnes & Noble (request it if it’s not already there), or you can buy it right now on Amazon.com.
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