Writing Fantasy: How to Write Fresh When Following a Recipe

How do you entice readers to try out a new world when everyone already loves the old one? Why start from scratch when the recipe works?
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When a reader falls in love with a new fantasy world, they can be skittish about trying something new. One of my heroes growing up (and the man who inspired me to write) was Terry Brooks and his Shannara books always outsold his other series. I was willing to follow him into the world of the Magic Kingdom series and his urban fantasy series, but like many others felt the recipe of Shannara to be the most enjoyable. I was always ready for another helping!

This guest post is by Jeff Wheeler. Wheeler is the Amazon bestselling author of the Muirwood series and his new Kingfountain series is on track to eclipse his earlier success. He took an early retirement from his career at Intel in 2014 to become a full-time author. He is, most importantly, a husband and father, and a devout member of his church. He is also one of the founders of Deep Magic: the E-zine of Clean Fantasy and Science Fiction. His new book The Queen’s Poisonercan be purchased at Amazon.

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Photo credit Kim Bills.

During my own writer’s journey, I did not want to be constrained to write in a single world. My imagination has always been like the opening credits of Star Trek, with a craving to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go—well, you get the drift.

But that leads to a problem. How do you entice readers to try out a new world when everyone already loves the old one? Why start from scratch when the recipe works?

In my view, the wonderful thing about ingredients is the variety of offerings. Whoever decided to crush Oreos into vanilla ice cream was a genius. Authors are inspired by a variety of sources and then mash-up different ideas to create interesting new concoctions. Some work, some don’t. We explore and play with many. I’ve always liked to push and test myself to do something nontraditional.

So how do I make it easy for readers to swallow?

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First, I need to get myself excited about the new world and unexplored possibilities. I’ve done this with all the series I’ve written by immersing my mind with ideas and letting these ideas stew inside my brain for weeks or months (or sometimes years!). For my Muirwood books, I chose to write a very strong female protagonist, a teenage girl living as an orphan at Muirwood Abbey. To prepare myself to tell her story, I read many classics like Anne of Green Gables,The Little Princess, and lots of Jane Austen. I wanted a story that had a classic feeling to it, one that danced between YA and adult fantasy, a book that moms and daughters would want to read together. After that, I needed to make the world real by establishing a setting that I could see, smell, and practically touch. So I chose a real setting, Glastonbury Abbey in England, and did a ton of research on that area and stared at dozens and dozens of pictures from every angle. I even contacted the groundskeeper of the abbey to get photos from inside the kitchen where my character grew up. I learned about secret tunnels that had been discovered beneath the grounds. All of this research and the local geography and maps helped inspire plot details.

I did the same thing with my new Kingfountain series. Only this time, I immersed myself in Shakespeare plays, watching several different versions of Richard III along with the BBC’s Hollow Crown series. The costumes, the castles, the sword fighting, the dialogue all swam around inside my brain and inspired different elements. I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of “flow” and added rivers and waterfalls to the series and created a new kind of spirituality represented by the Fountain. Just as I had pushed myself to write from the point of view of a teenage girl, I pushed myself again writing from the point of view of an eight-year old boy named Owen. How did I get into the head of a little boy? My two youngest, aged 7 and 9, were my source material. Once this world and its characters were real to me, I could try to make it real to my readers.

The second strategy I’ve used to help ground my readers in new worlds is the use of inter-chapter quotes. I didn’t invent this device, but mine is a little different. You see, I’ve been collecting wisdom quotes for over a decade now. These are quotes from ancient philosophers like Seneca, Ovid, and Plutarch or from more modern people like Benjamin Franklin or James Allen and they divulge the secrets of life, love, and human nature. I choose these sayings and then twist them around to fulfill my purpose and shed light on the world, whether its customs, religions, traditions, or whatever. I used very classical quotes for my Muirwood series. For The Queen’s Poisoner, my muse was Machiavelli and I attributed the quotes to a bored spy named Dominic Mancini, a member of the cast writing these in his journal.

This device really helps me explain things in short, tasty morsels without having to dump the information on my readers in a single serving. I also have been known to weave distinct elements from one world in subtle ways into the new world. For example, the most dreaded monster I’ve invented is called the Fear Liath. Before one appears, the air gets cold and a mist descends and you hear them before you see them. I used this monster in both my Muirwood and Mirrowen series. The touch of familiarity has prompted many questions.

Not every reader is going to appreciate every new recipe, and that’s all right. I think what’s the most important is readers sensing that the different worlds are real and distinct to me. Because if I’m convinced they are, then they get to experience it as well.

And sometimes, taking risks like that pay off. My new world of Kingfountain seems poised to overshoot the old favorite. I couldn’t be more pleased.

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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.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems

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