First off, thanks to Susan for inviting me to talk a little bit about how I approach world building in her newsletter.
Being a medievalist by training, I have spent a lot of time poring over illuminated manuscripts and the maps that defined the perimeters and parameters of the Middle Ages. The physical edges of the world as someone in twelfth-century Europe would have understood them, for instance, had a direct impact on how they viewed the structure of their society and their place within it.
Danger was to be found at the edges, in the margins. Danger—but also magic.
When I start creating a new secondary fantasy world, I think of a medieval scribe looking at a fresh sheet of vellum and delineating the world into the known and the unknown, filling the blank spaces with dragons. Consciously or not, the scribe was demonstrating where the magic in their world was to be found.
The Medieval Latin mappa mundi (“map of the world”) is the origin of our English word “map”—mappa literally being the cloth on which maps were often drawn at the time.
Fantasy worlds are by definition fantastical, meaning that they operate by a different set of magical rules from our own. In order for the reader to suspend their disbelief and become fully engaged in a fantasy world, the rules of that world must be clearly articulated and they must make a certain amount of logical sense.
In my experience, exploiting the geography of the world I’m creating lends itself to developing the most coherent magic system.
When I started drafting the first book of my Sweet Black Waves trilogy, for instance, I knew that since it was a retelling of the Tristan and Iseult legend, which is Celtic in origin, that I wanted to incorporate the concept of the Otherworld from Celtic mythology and folklore.
This belief held that there was an Otherworld separate from ours inhabited by gods and other immortal creatures that could be reached beneath hills, through the sea, or sometimes by just accidentally wandering across an invisible Veil. This division between the human world and the Otherworld was the first line I needed to draw on the map of my world and the foundation of my magic system.
If you think of the Greek pantheon with the gods sitting atop Mount Olympus orchestrating and interfering with the human world below, you start to see a pattern through most world mythologies in the division between the realm of mortals and the real of deities.
Do the gods/spirits in your world dwell on lofty perches or beneath the ground? This is the first decision you need to make.
In Sweet Black Waves, the next dichotomy I set up was between the land and the sea. The heroine of my trilogy, Branwen, is the lady’s maid to princess of an island kingdom called Iveriu which has been at war with the kingdom of Kernyv across the sea for generations. Branwen’s parents were killed by the raiders who terrorize the shores of Iveriu and the sea is therefore associated with danger and death by my protagonist and her countrymen. In contrast, Branwen and the other women in her family possess a natural healing magic that is rooted in land itself.
To embody this conflict, I created two primary deities drawn from Celtic mythology. In Irish legend, it is the goddess of the land who chooses the rightful king; her body is literally the island of Ireland and she represents its sovereignty. Éire—the name for Ireland in the Irish language—in fact evolved from the Old Irish word Ériu, which is the name of this sovereignty goddess. The Goddess Ériu is consequently the font of both magic and political power in Sweet Black Waves’ kingdom of Iveriu (in which I have also incorporated her name!)
But if Ériu is the goddess who imbues Branwen with her healing magic, who tempts her with the more destructive facet of her power?