When I published my first fantasy novel, Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners, in 1987, I never planned to go back to that world. If anyone asked, I said the characters all died of typhoid the following year.
Apparently I was wrong—or they got better. Since then I’ve written two more novels in that “Riverside” world, am working on a third, and recently opened up the world to co-writers on the collaborative serial Tremontaine (all of these, incidentally, written out of chronological order). Obviously, the sensible thing to do was to return to Novel #1 and make a lot of lists. I did that. Sort of. I’m not the most organized person in our own world, let alone another.
Here are tips on how to revisit a world you've written about before and grow it into additional novels.
This guest post is by Ellen Kushner. Kushner’s paying jobs have included folksinger, book editor, national public radio host, writing teacher, audiobook narrator, and pilgrim at Plimoth Plantation. Her Riverside novels include Swordspoint, The Privilege of the Sword (Locus Award, Nebula nominee), and The Fall of the Kings (written with Delia Sherman), and a growing collection of short stories. She lives in New York City with Delia Sherman, no cats, and a whole lot of airplane and theater ticket stubs she just can’t bring herself to throw away.
LET YOUR WORLD GROW WITH YOU
A lot can change over ten or twenty years in the real world; why deny the same changes to a fantasy world?
To us, the past can seem like one undifferentiated Renaissance Faire. But when you’re living in it, you’re very well aware of how different things can feel in a small space in time. Take something as recent as the 1970s: If I showed you a picture of styles from 1973 and 1979, they’d probably look the same to you. But I can assure you that a 1979 teen who showed up in an outfit from 1973 would look like an idiot to their peers. Those differences matter to your characters, and are a good way of economically conveying change.
We’re used to thinking of changes in our world as coming only from technology. But there are many ways for changes to occur. In Shakespeare’s day, a man named John Stowe wrote a “Survey of London” in which he claimed that no one in England had ever ridden sidesaddle until a king’s wife brought the style from her home country. Stowe also complained that in his own lifetime everyone used to walk everywhere, “but now of late years the use of coaches, brought out of Germany, is taken up, and . . . the world runs on wheels with many whose parents were glad to go on foot!”
Since time immemorial, adults have been complaining that no one has manners or education any more and the young no longer respect their elders . . . I’ve heard the same lines ascribed to ancient Chinese tablets, ancient Greek tablets, ancient Sumerian tablets. . . and then there’s this quote supposedly from the Roman orator Cicero: “Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.”
The people in your world undoubtedly feel the same.
GROW WITH YOUR WORLD: WRITE FOR THE PRESENT
Sometimes you shouldn’t be too consistent. Recognize that the world you’re writing for is not the one you wrote for originally. For instance, there was no mention of people of color in my original books, something unacceptable to young readers today. It was great fun figuring out how PoC could be realistically introduced to my city, via foreign trade: in fact, it became so obvious in the context of the original world that now it feels like they’ve always been there. Attitudes toward women, toward gender and sexuality have shifted, too. You don’t have to engage with all this to the detriment of your particular vision. But you should be aware. You’re writing for your current audience, not your old one.
NEVER APOLOGIZE, NEVER EXPLAIN
My colleague Adam Troy-Castro says: “If there are elements you regret that can be safely ignored, then treat them with benign neglect. You neither contradict nor support.”
It is, after all, a book, crafted by you, the author. It isn’t real. Much as we readers value the illusion of an imaginary world complete in itself, it is only illusion. This world is your work of art. If you can’t mess with it, who can?
STOP LOOKING OVER YOUR SHOULDER: NO ONE IS GAINING ON YOU
Yes, a few readers will gleefully ferret out even the most trivial of inconsistencies. And yes, you will hear from them. But take that as a chance to engage with someone who really, really loves your work and cares about your world, not as a rap on the knuckles from your 7th grade teacher.
And for every reader who finds a fault or a misstep, there are hundreds, hopefully thousands, more who will not know and do not care, as long as the writing is good, the characters engaging and the story spellbinding.
Let those be the readers you write for.
And take joy in coming home.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.