Creating the World of KINGLET

In the run-up to the August 2017 publication of my debut novel, Kinglet: Book One of The Gemeta Stone, I wrote a half-dozen essays on aspects of the writing process and creating Kinglet’s world. I posted the essays in sequence on the News, Notes & Info page of my website, but since that page changes a few times a month, I thought it would be fun to gather those six essays here. I hope you enjoy them.

kingletcover

How Kinglet Came to Be

It feels both weird and a little pompous to say that the idea for Kinglet came to me in a dream, but that’s absolutely how it happened.

I was a junior in high school, a time when I used to have particularly memorable and vivid dreams (ah, how I miss those days). One morning, just before I woke up, I dreamed about a dark-haired young man on a black horse. In the dream, he and the horse were standing still, on a level road running through green and sunlit countryside. I saw just a flash of him, and at that moment I immediately knew his name: Kristan Gemeta.

I woke up wondering what that was all about. The name rang through my brain as I showered and dressed and gathered my books. I thought about it as I ate my breakfast, on the bus ride to school, and even after the first bell rang. And when I walked into my favorite class – Mrs. Cooper’s Advanced Composition – I was still carrying that image, and that name, in my head. 

Our assignment that day – again, weirdly – was to write the beginning of a story. Not the whole thing, just the beginning. And so I started a story about a young man on a black horse who meets a red-headed girl, on an isolated, sunlit road. I named the young man Kristan Gemeta.

I don’t know what kind of grade or commentary Mrs. Cooper gave me (I expect it was favorable; English was always my best subject), but something about that story made me decide to save it. I tore the pages out of the notepad I used for that class. I still remember that pad, plain as day:  college-ruled, top bound, with three holes in the left side so you could put it in a binder. I put the beginning of that story away with some other story ideas.

Years later I came across that fragment of story again. I read it, and felt Kristan’s character tug at me once more.

Over time, I’ve rewritten and revised the plot that eventually became Kinglet. I’ve built the world of The Gemeta Stone series, created its landscape, and peopled it with hundreds of characters, all of whom I care about intensely.

While the story and the supporting cast have changed over time, one thing has never altered: the name and character of Kristan Gemeta. It still seems unreal that, nearly 45 years later, a tiny scrap of a teenager’s dream about a gentle young man is now fully fleshed, and out into the world for everyone to see.

Creating Kristan Gemeta

When I started writing The Gemeta Stone series, I knew right away that I wanted a main character who was, first and foremost, human. And I don’t mean human insofar as species – I mean a character who has doubts, fears and flaws in addition to his good qualities.

Kristan Gemeta is the only son of a king – heir to the throne of Fandrall and to the responsibilities and privileges that come with it. But he’s also something of a misfit in his father’s court. Kristan is small, slight, introspective and gentle. Worse, he believes in Wiche, the ancient magical lore which has fallen so far out of favor that it’s been outlawed in neighboring kingdoms. This belief, coupled with his compassionate nature, puts Kristan at odds with both his warrior-king father and the pragmatic, battle-hardened knights of Fandrall.

Once I created this misfit prince, I wondered what would happen if he was suddenly and violently thrust into a position of leadership. Would he rise to the occasion, or falter and fail? I chose the latter.

With his father murdered, his kingdom overtaken, his family’s protective talisman stolen and his courage lost, Kristan flees to the forbidding wilderness of the Exilwald, a forest of outcasts and criminals. It’s there that his story really begins.

All the books in The Gemeta Stone series take their titles from nicknames Kristan is given on his journey. In the case of Kinglet, it’s the name of a small, reclusive Exilwald bird that seems like nothing special until it displays its hidden crown of red feathers. Like the kinglet bird, Kristan’s choice is between the relative safety of a life in the shadows, or the dangers of stepping forward to reclaim both his name and his birthright.

The World and Magic of Kinglet

I’m often asked about the “world” in which Kinglet is set. Let me say at the outset that it’s a familiar world to readers of fantasy: a medieval-esque setting, a largely human population, a male-dominant society, horses for transportation, swords for weapons.

But it’s a world on the brink of change, and that’s brought about by the long-suppressed and much-denigrated magical lore known as Wiche. As Kristan Gemeta, the protagonist of Kinglet explains: “My old teacher Simeon once told me that Wiche is simply a catchall term for anything beyond our power to comprehend or explain. Not everything Wiche is magic, but all magic is Wiche.”

In the world of Kinglet, there are two kinds of magic. The first is Learned, meaning it can be taught and studied and understood. It can be written down and passed on to another. It can be twisted and altered to change its purpose, and its power is limited by the abilities of the one who uses it. Daazna, the main antagonist of Kinglet, is a Wichelord – a master of Learned magic.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is True magic, or Tabi’a. It is magic in its natural form. No spell created it, no spell can master it, and no spell can destroy it. It exists for its own purpose, and no other. The Gemeta Stone, the legendary protective talisman which belongs to Kristan’s family, is one example of Tabi’a.

It’s this clash between Learned magic and Tabi’a that catapults Kristan’s life into chaos, and it’s his struggle to understand the Stone’s Tabi’a that’s an ongoing theme throughout the series.

The Gemeta Stone: Writing a Series

With the publication of Kinglet: Book One of The Gemeta Stone, I’m often asked by people how in the world I was able to write one book, let alone an entire series. My answer is: “I didn’t realize it was going to be a series!”

When I first started work on the series, I didn’t even know it would be a series. I was simply writing scenes about characters who appealed to me. While I don’t outline, I had an idea of a through-line, but letting myself write all the “fun stuff” first – the fight scenes, the exciting dialogue exchanges, the introductions of each character. I’d skip the hard stuff like transitions and exposition, promising myself I’d get back to them later. Eventually I had a ring binder full of scenes, and realized I only had to put them in order and write the missing parts, and I’d have a book. Easier said than done. When I finally finished, my heart sank at the knowledge that the book was too long (like, 350k words of too long).

So I dived back into the story, cutting and tightening. I ended up with a more manageable 225k words – still too long, and I had a lot more story to tell. That’s when I acknowledged that what I was writing was not a single book, but a series. Fortunately there was a logical place to “break” that first massive tome, so voila! I suddenly had not one book, but two. I didn’t know what to call them, so I put them aside and started work on the third book.

This time I made myself write in order, so I wouldn’t have such a scrambled-up mess to deal with later on, and I also edited and polished as I wrote. As the story spooled out, I had two big realizations: 1) the nicknames my protagonist earned along his journey would make great titles for the individual books in the series, and 2) Book Number Three was going to be another whopper.

I had about four months of being semi-blocked while I dealt with a major stumbling block in the plot. During that time I did a fair amount of editing, but barely wrote anything new. Instead, I stewed over solving that plot problem.

At the end of those four months I was visiting my elderly mother in Tennessee. She’s a devout Catholic, and even though I’m not, I accompanied her to church. During that Sunday’s sermon I was sitting quietly, letting my mind wander, when suddenly a potential solution to my plot problem hit me. I confess that I sat there, barely breathing, as a partial idea took shape. I’d had other solutions that hadn’t worked out in the end, so I didn’t rush home to the computer. For a week I just let things percolate. Lo and behold, the following Sunday, again at church, again during the sermon, the rest of the solution came to me. This time I rushed home and started work again. (Thank you, Mom. Thank you, God.)

The place where I’d been blocked turned out to be the very place to break the story into Books Three and Four. It was while I was polishing Book Three for my beta readers that my agent called and told me we had an offer for the series. That was just about a year ago, and I’m still stunned at how fast things moved once I’d signed on the dotted line. Kinglet is out in the world now, with its sequel Fiskur to follow in November, and the third book, StoneKing due for release in early 2018. Meanwhile Book Four, Ragis, waits in the wings while I work on the series’ finale.

The Strong Female Character

I recently joined a Twitter group called #51writers, named for the percentage of women vs. men in the U.S. It’s focused on the creation and development of strong female characters in literature. Even though Kristan Gemeta, the main protagonist of Kinglet (and of the entire The Gemeta Stone series) is male, and his primary antagonist is male, it’s the women in the series who end up being most influential.

Foremost among these female characters is Heather Demitt. Heather is young when we first meet her; barely eighteen, impetuous, bright and outspoken. Originally she was conceived as a love interest for Kristan, but her bold vitality contrasted so well against Kristan’s more cautious and introspective personality that she developed into a co-protagonist. Nearly half of Kinglet is told from her point of view.

Then there’s Ariphele, the mother of Kinglet’s antagonist, the Wichelord Daazna. As powerful and terrifying as Daazna is, Ariphele’s sarcasm and blunt opinions never fail to get under his skin. Theirs is a strange and complicated love-hate relationship that provides some of Kinglet’s most unsettling moments.

At the beginning of Kinglet, Kristan receives a warning of coming catastrophe from two old women he meets while out riding. They were such an interesting pair and I had such fun writing their dialogue. Here’s a sample:

The larger woman looked at him sharply. “The world is full of little splits and cracks and clefts and rifts, boy. You can see them every day – not when you ride a fast horse, mind – but only if you walk slow as we do, with your eyes and your ears open, with your skin feeling and your nose smelling and your tongue tasting the air like a snake.” Suddenly she ran her tongue out and in, and Kristan jumped a little. 

“But when the cleft is large, like this one,” said the small woman, “when it runs a long way and spreads as it runs, like this one – it’s a Reaving. Something even a boy on a fast horse can see. For years these Reavings have moved through the mountains north of Hogia, as is right, because the mountains are fearsome things, full of strange and terrible magics. But in the last few seasons, Reavings have wended down the mountains and spread into the Plain of Hogia itself. This is the first time one has crossed the River Mor. It signifies, boy.”

Their words have such a profound impact on Kristan that he tells his father the king of their warning, knowing full well that such magical pronouncements are viewed as nonsense and he’s risking his father’s wrath for even speaking of them. That simple action sets Kristan up for a disaster that will change his entire life.

The funniest thing about that scene is that it was inspired by this photo of my mother, Marge Lillard, and her younger sister Julia deRooy. I took the photo some years ago, when we were strolling in Aunt Julia’s large backyard on a gray winter day. I can’t remember now why Mom and Aunt Julia were pointing at the ground, but the image hung with me for years. In Kinglet the season changed to spring, and the setting is somewhere in the royal fields of Fandrall instead of a suburban yard, but that’s the magic of writing: you can find inspiration in the most familiar faces and the most mundane places.

Creating a Believable Bad Guy

When I was completing the first full draft of Kinglet: Book One of The Gemeta Stone, I attended a week-long writers’ workshop – one that I found valuable mostly for the discussions with my fellow author/attendees. One day when we were kicking around the topic of antagonists and how we introduced those characters in our books, I discovered that I was the only one who began my story with my bad guy –  the other writers started off with their protagonist. When I revealed that my villain, Daazna, was a powerful magic-worker with a thirst for revenge, one of the other authors got very excited. “Then you have to show just how dangerous he is right away,” he said with a gleam in his eyes. “He needs to do something awful.”

I realized he was right. Originally I just had Daazna arriving by ferryboat on the shores of Fandrall, thinking about how he’d been wronged by the kingdom’s royal family years before. It was interesting, yes, but it wasn’t the kick-ass start I needed. And so I took that author’s advice and rewrote the beginning – and what Daazna ended up doing gave even me the heebie-jeebies.

But an all-powerful, 24-7 bad guy can get dreary. I found that it was equally important to show how deeply Daazna’s anger was rooted in jealousy and hurt. I’m not saying an antagonist has to be sympathetic, but certainly the motivation for his actions should be clear – otherwise he’s just a cartoon villain. It helped that Daazna’s mother Ariphele is a supporting character, and I was able to use her sarcasm to goad Daazna and ramp up not just his anger, but his need to prove himself to her. Their relationship is one of the most intriguing in the book.

And that’s why I really enjoyed writing Daazna’s scenes – even the creepy ones.

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