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Building the World of The Burning Land and The Awakened City

One of the happiest days of my life was the day I graduated from college and left the scholarly life behind, as I thought, forever. Don't get me wrong--my college experience was wonderful, and I'm grateful for the things I learned, the friends I made, and the avenues that opened for me as a result. But I truly don't have a scholarly temperament. I do not enjoy study and research, and I'm allergic to deadlines. What I really wanted--what I've wanted since the age of seventeen--was to write fiction.

"Hallelujah," I thought to myself as I turned my back on the halls of academe, "I'll never have to bang out another research paper."

Little did I know. Perhaps it's the universe laughing at me, but every one of my books has required extensive research. I grumble, I complain...but there's no getting around it. In order to properly invent something, you need a solid knowledge base.

"But," as an acquaintance of mine once said, "it's only fantasy! Can't you just make it all up?"

Well, sure. And many writers do. But while there are varieties of fantasy that arise whole and entire from the author's imagination (Mervyn Peake's Ghormenghast books come to mind), most have at least something to do with the real world, or use real-world models as the basis for their fabrications. If you want to write a fantasy with an Asian flavor, your imaginary world will have a lot more depth if you do some research into Asian cultures. If there are battle scenes in your book, it's a good idea to read up on weaponry and military strategy. If one of your characters is a metalsmith, you'll need to know something about metalworking techniques if you want him to be credible.

Also, while strange and wondrous things do occur in fantasy novels, an imagined world, however fantastical, must have enough internal consistency to strike the reader as authentic in and of itself. If the details of that world are flimsy or contradictory, the impact of a story set in that world will be undermined. Careful research greatly aids convincing world building.

What follows is designed to provide a small window on the research and world building that went into my
Way of Ârata duology, which includes The Burning Land and The Awakened City.

Most of my books begin with a long plot synopsis, which not only helps me flesh out story and character, but tells me where I need to concentrate my research. For The Burning Land and The Awakened City, much of my effort was focused on creating the Way of Ârata, the religion that lies at the core of the story, along with its legends, its scriptures, and its traditions and institutions.

My goal was a monotheistic religion that did not substantially resemble the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Because I wanted to come up with something that had no real-world analogue (rather than adapting or extrapolating from an existing faith), my research consisted mainly of general reading about a wide variety of religious traditions, which I hoped would give me inspiration in two areas.

First, I needed to work out the basic structural elements of the Way of Ârata. For instance, many religions hold that the world as we know it, full of suffering and evil, is the result of a cosmic catastrophe that will eventually be undone or redressed. From this came my idea of the wounded god whose descent into slumber brings time and death into the world, and whose awakening restores the earth to its original perfection.

Second, I was looking for interesting practices and traditions that I could borrow or adapt. A few examples: my notion of a scripture dictated directly by the god to a human prophet is taken from Islam. The perpetually reincarnated Brethren come from Tibetan Buddhism. Âratist monastic practice takes (very) loose inspiration from Buddhist practice.

Also important to me was to create a religion that would feel real--a faith it was conceivable that some group of people somewhere in our own world might actually follow. Religion in fantasy novels is often little more than window dressing, no more significant than the layout of a city or the architecture of a palace; or else it's a highly conventionalized version of pantheism, whose gods are literally real and often play a part in the story. I didn't want Ârata to be just one more element of world building, or to reduce him to the status of a character. I wanted him to be far more powerful and ambiguous than that. He stands in relation to the The Burning Land and The Awakened City as the Christian God does to a Graham Greene novel: overwhelmingly present in the characters' hearts and minds, overwhelmingly absent from their world. It's not
Ârata's literal existence that's important, but the ways in which those who believe in him act on their belief.      

Other detailed research included the Australian outback, to give a realistic flavor to the vast desert from which The Burning Land takes its title; the Jordanian city of Petra--a "rose red city half as old as time," cut into the walls of a sandstone cleft--which was my model for the lost city of Refuge; some general reading on the Russian Revolution and Mao Zedong, to flesh out the Caryaxist rebellion (which in the end turned out not to have much to do with either of those real-world models); some exploration of herbal lore, since one of my heroines, Axane, is a healer; research on religious cults (including Jim Jones and the People's Temple), to add authenticity to the messianic cult that plays a large part in The Awakened City; and visits to a few large solution caves (caverns eaten into limestone by the action of water, such as Mammoth Cave) like the ones in which the cult makes its home.

Notes in hand, I turned to the task of organizing the information into a form I could use. Rather than making outlines or enumerating facts, it helps me to create little essays, as if I were writing entries for an imaginary encyclopedia (I guess I've retained more of those academic habits than I like to think). I've included a number of these in this section. Some, such as a series of episodes from church history, a discussion of Âratist religious practice, and an exploration of the magic of Shapers and Dreamers, were essential background information for the book. Some, such as the list of Âratist heresies, I did mostly for fun.

Last, I made maps, to flesh out the continent of Galea and keep myself oriented--very important, since there's a lot of travel in the books, and the distances, as well as the timeframes involved, needed to be plausible. I'm a terrible draughtsperson, and my maps are not fit for public consumption--but luckily I have a friend who's an excellent cartographer, and he was able to take my messy sketches and turn them into real maps.

If you've read The Burning Land or The Awakened City, you'll see that much of the content of my little essays never made it into the books. In part, this has to do with a basic fact of world building: There's a lot of information the author has to develop in order to construct a believable setting, but that information doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the story the author decides to tell. Many of the specifics of Âratist ritual, for instance, which I needed to explore in order to have a solid sense of the context in which my Âratist characters exist, don't appear in the novel, because they don't figure into the plot.

Also responsible for absent detail is the editing process, which required me to cut quite a lot of description in the interest of a more streamlined narrative. Left to my own devices, I probably would have retained much of what I was asked to remove; I feel that this kind of detail contributes to the reader's sense of place. However, I'm also aware that I'm not totally objective on this issue. The dark side of careful world building is the considerable temptation to find a way to shoehorn all one's wonderful inventions into the book, whether or not they belong. Overstuffing a novel with background material can send it down tedious and irrelevant byways--not to mention, encourage the dreaded infodump (or I should say, the dreaded obvious infodump, since a vital skill for those of us who write in imaginary settings is finding ways to infodump without the reader catching us at it).

One of the ways I guard against the impulse to overstuff is to develop in depth only those areas of my world that are required by my story. For instance, the kingdom of Haruko is important because it's home to a large community of Arsacian expatriates driven out by the Caryaxist rebellion--but neither of the books are set in Haruko, and Harokoi politics don't affect any of the action, so I didn't bother naming cities or deciding on geographical features or working out the fine details of the government.

Some people consider this heresy. Many fantasy writers feel that it's vital to work out every aspect of their invented worlds before they start writing, from geography to culture. But for me, this is clutter. You can write a novel set in Massachusetts even if you don't know much about Illinois. You don't have to be familiar with the prairies of the Midwest to write about the forests of Maine, and if your book is set in Manhattan, who cares what's happening in Los Angeles? Unless it plays a part in the story, of course. Because I have a good grasp of the basic ground rules of my setting, I can easily invent more details if I need them.

This results in a fair bit of world building on the fly--which, because it takes place during the actual process of writing, does slow me down. Still, it works better for me than spending a lot of initial time developing things I may not need. It's also a good compromise with my natural impatience, which constantly urges me to skip the prep work and jump right into the writing--plus, it preserves a certain amount of spontaneity within the context of all my careful planning, leaving room for those unplanned connections, those flashes of inspiration that are the lifeblood of writing.

Research and prep work for The Burning Land took perhaps three months, with several additional one or two week intervals where more research was needed. For The Awakened City, only about a month of preparation was required, because all the basic world building was done. Even so, I wound up pausing two or three times along the way to do some extra reading.

I still don't especially enjoy the research process. But I've made my peace with it, because there really are no shortcuts to doing things right. The deadlines I thought I was escaping when I graduated from college, on the other hand...unfortunately, that's another story. I'm still allergic to those.