@sjaejones Worldbuilding post!!!!! Pleaaaaase
— Roshani Chokshi (@NotRashKnee) February 17, 2016
Of course Roshani had to go and pick the one thing I am bad at explaining. Thanks, Rosh. 😂
Down in the Underground…
Some people have asked me to write about the worldbuilding in Wintersong, which, sure, I can try. Except I’m not sure if I can even explain how I came to “building” the world of the Underground, let alone pick out all the disparate influences. Thankfully I have Pinterest to do that for me.
I am being glib, of course. The honest truth is, when it comes to worldbuilding, I don’t necessarily have a systematic way of going about it. I don’t have charts or family trees or maps, I don’t have anything but an image, from which an entire universe grows.
I mentioned in Wintersongs’s origin story that I had an image: a girl, underground. Her name was Liesl. She was a composer.
I had an image, I had a character. As for where the image came from, I can’t really explain. So much of the “creative process”, as it were, is mystical and mysterious, and for me, this is one of them. Where do ideas come from? Where do these images come from? The ether, the air, the strands that make up our obsessions. For me, it’s gothic stories, Underworld narratives, strange and sinister magic, forests, fairytales, goblins, glitter, gems, death, and all their attendant associations.
Visuals have a strong impact on my worldbuilding, of course, although perhaps not necessarily in the way people might assume. I am a visual artist, yes, but I don’t “see” my characters or the space in which they move, at least, not like a movie. I see in contrasts, colors, shapes, rather than photographs. When I write, I fill in the details, much the way I would with a brush on canvas.
Writing is a lot like painting, at least for me. In a portrait, I start with the eyes, the lips, the nose, then fill out the shape of the jaw, the general silhouette of the hair, shoulders, body, pose. In writing I start with a feeling, then the physicality of that feeling, then the physicality of that feeling in a physical space. The details start to emerge the more I work on a piece: the corners, the shadows, the highlights. The world grows.
I realize that this is all mystic mumbo-jumob. Let me start again.
I had an image: A girl, underground. Her name was Liesl. She was a composer.
Let’s dissect that image then.
A girl, underground. Underground. A burrow. A barrow. Dirt and roots and rock. Stalagmites and stalactites. Caves, gems, goblins, glitter. Stalagmites and stalactites.
Her name was Liesl. Germanic. A Bavarian construction to the name, a diminutive of Elisabeth. Hair twined about her head in milkmaid braids, a torn and tattered dress. Dirndls, aprons, bodices.
She was a composer. Music scores. Red violins. The late 18th century. Ballgowns and petticoats and wigs and decadence.
From this one image, I had several things: a time, a place, and an aesthetic.
The time and place were relatively easy; I could research them the way I could research any thing else: through books, articles, documentaries, and my memories of traveling through Central Europe. But aesthetic cannot be researched; it can only be cultivated.
I’ve made no secret of my goth sensibilities, and I think that sensibility infuses the entirety of Wintersong. I am someone who finds beauty in death and decay, secrets and shadows. I revel in creepiness, finding the sublime in the nebulous areas between fascination and revulsion. So I reach for that which rings all my goth bells.
The first and most obvious:
The ghoulish, leering masks, the glitter, the uncomfortable sense of unknowable danger, coupled with the desire to be seduced by it. The ballroom dance scene in Labyrinth was pretty influential in more ways than just the obvious. More than the actual romantic dance with the Goblin King, it was always the cruelty in his smile that struck me most. Could Sarah trust him? Could she not? The laughs and jeers of the other ballgoers, the chaos and confusion, I wanted to incorporate all those feelings into my book. The Underground to which Liesl journeys is beautiful…and dangerous.
I remember watching Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête on TCM late one night when I was 15 years old. If there is ever a better time to watch this film for the first time, I doubt it. Surreal, strange, unsettling, the film feels more like a dream than a story, with distinct images that stick in the mind. This one in particular, with arms holding the candelabras in the corridor, is pretty famous, and I even sneak this into Wintersong. What I love about this corridor scene is the fact that it raises so many questions: whose arms are these? How do they still move? Are they alive? Are they part of the castle? Were they once people? Were they cursed? What, what, what?
I wanted the impression that just beyond the edges of the screen, the page, there was an entire world and universe unseen. I wanted questions without answers. I wanted, as Gmork says in The Neverending Story, a world without borders.
What underworld tale is complete without an underground lake? And what story has a better underground lake than The Phantom of the Opera?
Of course, I’m thinking of this:
A dark figure, leading you somewhere unknown. There’s a lot of mythological underpinnings to crossing a lake or a river to the land of death. And death is part of the DNA of Wintersong, both metaphorical and literal. Death is, as the youth say, my aesthetic, in the most goth way possible.
But did I consciously go about drawing these elements together to build the world of the Underground? That is less clear. For me, these influences all exist in the rich mulch of my imagination; thoughts and images grow from it without effort. And certainly I go back and prune these thoughts into a prettier shape, but in the initial stages of creation are a magical process that I think is best left untended.
If you would like a more systematic approach to worldbuilding, I highly recommend Kate Elliott‘s worldbuilding series:
- Introduction to a Series of Posts on Worldbuilding in Fiction
- The Flowering of an Image
- Inductive or Deductive
- Image to Idea, A Practical Example to Illustrate the Argument, Episode 1
- Deductive or Inductive: A Guest Perspective
- The Map as Theory
- The Internal Map
- Geography is Destiny
Kate will do another post every Wednesday, so y’all should subscribe!
That’s all for this month! If you want to know more about Wintersong, including behind-the-scenes information not available elsewhere, please subscribe to my newsletter! The next issue will go out next week, and will include Part I of the long, shitty synopsis I emailed my friend Marie (as detailed in the origin story)!