How Do You Approach Worldbuilding?

Three up-and-coming speculative fiction authors talk romance, worldbuilding, and fantasy maps in Part 1 of this exclusive conversation.

The Covers For Drowned Country, The Unspoken Name, and Winter's Orbit
Photo: Tor Books

We’re honored to bring this roundtable conversation between three of speculative fiction’s most exciting up-and-coming authors: Emily Tesh, A.K. Larkwood, and Everina Maxwell. In it, the writers and IRL friends have a funny and insightful conversation about everything from fantasy maps (yea or nay?), writing an emerging romantic relationship (how do Tesh and Maxwell do it so well?), and worldbuilding (the struggle!).

In honor of the recent publication of Tesh’s Drowned Country (the sequel to last year’s lush, folkloric fantasy Silver in the Wood), we’re running the first part of the conversation. We’ll finish the conversation in February, in celebration of the publication of Maxwell’s first novel, a gay space opera about princes in an arranged marriage called Winter’s Orbit. (Larkwood’s The Unspoken Name, a fantasy about an orc priestess turned wizard’s assassin, hit shelves back in February.)

Now, without further ado…

A. K. LARKWOOD: Hello, I’m A. K. Larkwood, also known as Kassie, I wrote The Unspoken Name, a book about what happens when you’ve been brought up with a terrible purpose – and then, when it comes to it, you can’t go through with it. Csorwe expects to die in the Shrine of the Unspoken One, but she’s rescued by a strange wizard who says he has a new task for her – and the question is how far she’ll go to serve the person who saved her life. It’s also about loyalty, sacrifice, and the special bond between truly annoying coworkers. I have spent most of the plague year so far doing a series of increasingly recherche craft projects to procrastinate working on the sequel. Surrounded by crochet animals, painted lampshades, wholemeal loaves and small watercolors of fruit, I now have no choice but to… participate in this Q&A.

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EMILY TESH: Hi! I’m Emily Tesh, and I wrote the Greenhollow Duology – Silver in the Wood, a story about what happens when the centuries-old avatar of the greenwood meets a handsome young folklore enthusiast with more curiosity than common sense, and its sequel Drowned Country, a story about being a person with no common sense who has accidentally stumbled into the role of a woodland demigod. I am not nearly as good at craft projects as Kass so my plague year procrastination has been spent replaying video games I have already played for hundreds of hours; at this rate my next book will be some sort of thinly veiled Starbound/Mass Effect/Two Point Hospital crossover in which all problems are solved by completing picross puzzles.

EVERINA MAXWELL: I haven’t done anything productive in quarantine but I’ve taken a whole lot of naps. Rounding out the SFF combo, I’m Everina Maxwell and I wrote Winter’s Orbit, a queer romantic space opera about arranged marriage, intergalactic politics, and slow healing from the past. To prevent a war, disreputable media darling Prince Kiem is ordered to marry Count Jainan of Thea, a quiet scholar grieving the loss of his previous husband. The match shouldn’t work, and the political waters are treacherous–even before Jainan is accused of murder. On with the questions!

Q: Let’s kick off with, what are we reading at the moment?

LARKWOOD: I really enjoyed Zen Cho’s The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected In Water, which is a snappy, funny, and rather touching novella about a nun who joins a group of bandits. If you’re looking for something longer, I also loved The Changeling by Victor Lavalle, which is about… a book dealer whose wife commits a terrible crime. Or is it??? I actually don’t want to tell you anything more about it because it’s such a wild ride. I picked it up and read the first page thinking ‘I’m not sure this is for me but let’s see’, and ended up eating up the whole thing in one go.

MAXWELL: My concentration has been a bit shot lately what with 2020 happening, but I’m excited to dig into Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders by Aliette de Bodard–Vietnamese mythology and murder husbands!

TESH: I have also been suffering from the pandemic of it all when it comes to reading, but I really enjoyed The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo – love the novella length for when you are having a hard time concentrating, and it is gorgeously written.

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Q: LARKWOOD: As we know I am a nerd who loves a fantasy map, but I understand you two are map-agnostic verging on anti-map. Please explain this wrong opinion to me. 

TESH: OK, my map agnosticism has two angles:

  1. As a reader and as a profoundly geographically confused person anyway, it is 100% likely that a fantasy map tells me nothing. We are crossing the Pointy Mountains to enter the Forest of Spiders? Fabulous, bring on the spiders. I do not care which direction they are coming from, I promise to be equally alarmed by them regardless of point of origin. I will literally never refer to a map when I am reading a book. It gives me nothing. Probably this is a personal failing.
  2. As a writer I am suspicious of mapping, especially mapping too soon, because it can pin you down to things you are later stuck with (oh no I put a river here and now it’s in the way – or even worse, oh no I need a river and the map says I haven’t got one.) And then that prevents me from using my all-time favourite setting trick, which is ‘Coincidentally We Have Found Ourselves In A Location That Precisely Echoes Our Emotional State.’ (The spiders… are the characters’ feelings.) For example, a good chunk of my novella Drowned Country is set in Fairyland, which ended up as a painfully barren and empty landscape – because that is where the characters are, emotionally speaking, so that was the setting I needed. But I couldn’t have mapped it – I am not a detailed planner and I often don’t know what emotionally significant locations I need until I hit the relevant sequence!

Obviously the usual caveat applies to all this which is ‘you can do anything if you do it well’. Even I can acknowledge that a good fantasy map is a thing of beauty. For example, Kass, I am deeply pleased by the map from The Unspoken Name, which turns a front-of-fantasy-novel standard into a character moment – want to tell us about how you designed it? 

LARKWOOD: I’ll be honest, my intention with the world of Unspoken was to make a fantasy setting that could not be mapped. (For those who haven’t read it: the setting is composed of many worlds connected by portals to an eerie hyperspace labyrinth called the Maze.) I was feeling burnt-out on the idea of a fantasy setting as an alternate universe or RPG setting or any other kind of internally consistent simulation. I wanted to make something not just implausible but impossible, and was feeling very harassed by the idea that someone might ever try to tell me that I was wrong about alluvial plains or something, so the original concept was actively contrarian about geography. For instance, there were rivers but no seas, because they had all been poisoned and destroyed by divine warfare thousands of years ago (take that, The Water Cycle!). 

Having made this unmappable world my immediate thought was “but how do I map it, though?” In the actual book, the Maze serves the dual purpose of giving us kind of a space opera feel, and also lets me do a lot of different surreal landscapes while giving the characters the ability to zip around quite freely from one location to another. So the map in the book is a collage of different fragmentary maps of different worlds – it’s supposed to give the impression that the main character has maybe been compiling it on her travels.

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MAXWELL: My editor asked me for a map three times. On her third attempt I realised I could no longer pretend I just hadn’t read that line in all her previous emails, panicked and opened PowerPoint, because Paint intimidates me and all I can do with a pencil is stab myself. This tells you everything you need to know about my mapmaking process.

Q: LARKWOOD: So Silver In The Wood/Drowned Country and Winter’s Orbit are both about a winsome fool who eventually kisses someone more sensible. I’m consistently impressed by how well the two of you can leverage an emerging relationship as the main conflict of your books (sometimes I try but I’ve always gotta put in a big snake or a haunted water feature) – what’s your approach to developing romance dynamics in your writing?

MAXWELL: I love deconstructing romance arcs. It’s a good example of something I could never get right when I started out, so I spent years trying to improve it. Different people have different bits of the writing toolkit when they get into the game (I’ve read Silver in the Wood; Emily was apparently born with the romance kit), but having to put work into something does give you a huge appreciation for what you like and an iron-clad knowledge of what you want to put on the page.

For me, it starts out very simple. You have a flawed character. Everyone else looks at them and thinks, oh, a normal person. Except another main character, who gets to know them and goes: holy shit, this thing you do is amazing and hot – which your first character doesn’t recognise, because to them it is Tuesday. This happens both ways round, and now you have pining. Then life comes at them hard (or in the case of Winter’s Orbit, a murder investigation and an irate press officer), and they both use their skills as a crowbar to crack that problem apart while the other one hands them screwdrivers and tries to remember not to stand there with their mouth open. Now you have accomplices, which is even better than pining. Then they start to trust not only in the other one’s skills, but that the other one will use those skills for the partnership—for them. Now you have a relationship built on a rock-solid foundation, and incidentally a team that everyone else looks at and decides is not worth messing with.

The draw for me is always a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Separately they have flaws and chips and a few veins of gold. Together they are brilliant.

TESH: I am so glad Ev had a smart answer because mine is just ‘and then… they kiss’ and that’s a plot, right.

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LARKWOOD: you’re both right, and also witches. I didn’t even know there was going to be a romance subplot in Unspoken until like, the third draft.

Q: LARKWOOD: Both your books take place in a setting which puts interesting pressure on those characters, whether it’s the forest primeval or a bureaucratic labyrinth of space offices. For me one of the great pleasures of writing SFF is that you can shape the world however you like (you will notice that in The Unspoken Name and sequel I somehow managed to construct an entire setting around big snakes and bad ponds). How do you approach worldbuilding?

MAXWELL: There are dozens of ways to approach worldbuilding, obviously, but I think the commonality is like growing pearls: you pick a grain of truth and irritate everyone around you until it turns into something that looks shiny from far away but smells fishy close up. That metaphor got away from me. What I mean is you tend to write what you know, which is an old and hackneyed statement but says something useful about how we can get from blank pages to spaceships.

I don’t know what it’s like to live in a multi-planet space empire. But I do know, intimately, how large bureaucracies work and the multitude of ways they go wrong. I know what snow looks like through glass on a night when you’re already tired and can’t escape to bed for several more hours, which means I know something about the climate and the rhythm of the day. I know how someone sufficiently charming can avoid learning the requisition system and just walk around security controls, which means I know what that requisition and security system looks like. And that gets built out in layers: every time you add an element, you think through more of its consequences, like layering colour on a page. You can very successfully build a world by starting with mountain ranges and rain shadows, obviously. But alternately you could just start with a deep well of creative frustration at the millionth time you’ve filled out Form 34-B, and build it up from there.

Q: TESH: We have joked at various times about our ‘casts of thousands’ – a phrase I think we stole from an essay by Diana Wynne Jones, discussing her short story Carol Oneir’s Hundredth Dream, where the same tiny group of characters are the ‘actors’ in hundreds of different dream narratives. I know I reuse characters or character types from story to story – spot the Large Sad Man in everything I write – but what about you? Who are your cast-of-thousands characters? What are the advantages of reusing a character type rather than lovingly handcrafting each new character from scratch?

LARKWOOD: I guess for the same reason that it’s easier to buy a box of watercolours than to grind your own pigments from the raw earth? The way you mix and apply them is what’s interesting, unless being the guy who makes his own paints is your whole thing – a cool thing, don’t get me wrong, but not everyone needs to write Ulysses.

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Anyway I freely admit to this. The antagonist of The Unspoken Name first showed up in a comic I made when I was 14 in which he was an immortal demon overlord and drug baron, which seems like a bit of an unwieldy career combination now I think about it. 

If I’m remembering correctly, Carol Oneir’s cast eventually goes on strike because of how clunkily she deploys them as stock characters – the lesson I take from this is that you can get away with dropping your immortal demon overlord in anywhere as long as you hide him well enough.

To be continued…

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this conversation, coming at you in February 2021.

Winter’s Orbit is now available for pre-order. Drowned Country and The Unspoken Name are available wherever books are sold. The paperback edition of The Unspoken Name will be out in January 2021.