Sunday, January 30, 2011

[Beyond the Wordcount] Blake Charlton on Worldbuilding Genesis

Do you wonder how a book is made? If you are an avid reader and the sight of a book makes you glow, then you probably have wondered about a novel’s journey from idea to hard/softcover delight on your local bookstore’s shelf. Did the author discover the story whole and intact? Did the story need countless revisions? How much is researched and how much is the product of the author’s imagination? What did the author have to go through to publish that novel you just love? Beyond the Wordcount is the feature that will give a behind-the-scene look to the story behind the story, the things that you will never guess as they stay off the pages.

BIO: Pursuing dual careers can be an exhausting, even haunting task. Devoting time to one craft is almost always accompanied by the sensation that the other craft is being neglected. The above quotations remind me why I bother to combine medicine and literature. At the root of both arts—when practiced correctly—is a transformation. From sickness to health, from ignorance to experience, from absence of feeling to wonder or awe or dread. Both arts are about expanding life, helping us become more rightly ourselves.

That might sound like lofty mumbo-jumbo coming from a guy who writes about wizards and dragons.


Imagine a world in which you could peel written words off a page and make them physically real. You might pick your teeth with a sentence fragment, protect yourself with defensive paragraphs, or thrust a sharply-worded sentence at an enemy’s throat.

Such a world is home to Nicodemus Weal, an apprentice at the wizardly academy of Starhaven. Because of how fast he can forge the magical runes that create spells, Nicodemus was thought to be the Halcyon, a powerful spellwright prophesied to prevent an event called the War of Disjunction, which would destroy all human language. There was only one problem: Nicodemus couldn’t spell.

Runes must be placed in the correct order to create a spell. Deviation results in a “misspell”—a flawed text that behaves in an erratic, sometimes lethal, manner. And Nicodemus has a disability, called cacography, that causes him to misspell texts simply by touching them.

Now twenty-five, Nicodemus lives in the aftermath of failing to fulfill prophecy. He finds solace only in reading knightly romances and in the teachings of Magister Shannon, an old blind wizard who’s left academic politics to care for Starhaven’s disabled students.

But when a powerful wizard is murdered with a misspell, Shannon and Nicodemus becomes the primary suspects. Proving their innocence becomes harder when the murderer begins killing male cacographers one by one…and all evidence suggests that Nicodemus will be next. Hunted by both investigators and a hidden killer, Shannon and Nicodemus must race to discover the truth about the murders, the nature of magic, and themselves.

The Task: Ever the worldbuilding nutjob I poked Blake Charlton to explain [yet again] how his world emerged and as nice as he is, he complied. So here it is kiddos. Enjoy.


As a junior in college, I was the only learning disabled student I knew and semi-terrified that I was an admission mistake. I also was painfully earnest about cultivating the “life of the mind.” The previous summer, I had revisited the first books I had read by myself, fantasies all of them. So the genre was in the back of my mind, but I wasn’t searching for an epic idea. It just happened.

Specifically, it just happened in a boring English Literature seminar on Shakespearian tragedy and ancient Greek tragedy. Fascinating syllabus, underwhelming lecture. I was jotting down notes. Back then, I still wrote mostly in a phonetic script, especially for words I had never seen spelled. For example, I might write the word “onomatopoeia” as “onohmonohpeeah.” Next to me sat another junior with whom I had something of a rivalry. We had taken several English classes together and often butted heads about interpretations. I both disliked and grudgingly respected him. At this particular moment, he had stopped listening to the lecture and was eyeing my notes.

“Wow,” he whispered while tapping on my phonetic shorthand, “you really did ride the short bus to school.”

I said something inane like “Tell me about it,” when in my mind I had this image of pulling my misspelled words off the page and using them like a boxing glove to punch him in the face.

I was still steaming after class as I walked back to my residential college. It was a beautiful dark, late-autumn day: the first snow of the year seems only moments away. Yale was built in imitation of Oxford and Cambridge: gothic arches, stone spires, the whole bit. My residential college, Trumbull College is particularly beautiful, abutting the large stain glass windows of Sterling Memorial Library. I found myself wandering around Trumbull’s neo-gothic courtyards and dreaming of clubbing my rival with physically real sentences. In particular, I paced the Potty Court: a stone courtyard that houses a semi-famous stone gargoyle sitting on a toilet.

Suddenly, the idea for Spellwright bloomed in my imagination. In a world where written language could be made physically real, universities would be vitally important. They might have even more spectacular gothic architecture and living gargoyles. In this world, authors would be terribly powerful and, because words had to be physically created, their muscles would be as important as their brains. And of course, being dyslexic would be really, really dangerous. How then would the magic spells behave? At the time I was also studying biochemistry, specifically how the language of DNA made proteins that affect the physical world. I decided that magical language would behave like organic macromolecules: it would have to fold into a correct conformation to become effective.

About an hour later, I had an outline for a young spellwright whose touch caused any text to misspell. Turning that into a novel, however, took eight more years; this is mostly because an interesting basis for a magic system doesn’t make an interesting novel. There’s a lot to consider when world building around magic (one must consider limits to magical power, its effects on society, etc). It took me a while to figure all of that out for myself.

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