Guest posts for the Ways into Worldbuilding series will appear most Wednesdays through early November. This week’s guest is the award-winning author Louise Marley.
Louise Marley is a former concert and opera singer, and the author of 18 novels of fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction. A graduate of Clarion West ’93, she has twice won the Endeavour Award for excellence in science fiction, and has been shortlisted for the Campbell, the Nebula, and the Tiptree Awards. Her historical fiction, the Benedict Hall trilogy, is written under the pseudonym Cate Campbell. She lives on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State with her husband Jake and a rowdy Border Terrier named Oscar.
Aside from reader expectations, why do you build worlds? Is it more of an obligation than a pleasure? If the latter, what is enjoyable or rewarding about this aspect?
Since my inspiration is often visual, an image that comes to my mind, I love worldbuilding. When I read, I expect to go someplace beyond the mundane world we live in, and when I write, I very much want to do the same. I yearn for different scenery, different cultures, different societies, and a touch of the fantastic become real.
How important is worldbuilding in your stories? Is it a goal for you to create an innovative world, or do you favor having the milieu sit more comfortably in the background?
Worldbuilding for me takes third place. First place is in the firm grasp of character development. Second is plot (hardest of all, for this writer.) Third is worldbuilding, which influences both #1 and #2. I often feel more free in worldbuilding than in anything else, because I can create it in just the way I like, and then adapt the characters and the plot to fit.
The image always comes first for me, and the practical details as I move forward. The experience I remember most distinctly was my first one, creating an ice world (The Singers of Nevya) without technology, but where people find a way to survive. I had the picture in my mind of people living in giant stone buildings set against an eternally snowy backdrop. Research showed me there had to be a thaw once in a while, and that led me to the binary star system which brought summer once every five years. Plot needs made that summer short, too short to be able to mine things from the frozen ground in order to create technology.
Describe a milieu from one your works, and the aspects you found most rewarding. Which ones did readers comment on the most?
I’ve just described Nevya, a world readers seemed to enjoy living in for a time. I’ve had a lot of comments also on the operatic and mystical world of my novel Mozart’s Blood. A number of readers have told me that my books are often their only glimpse into the world of professional music. Some readers, I confess, complained about the rules of my particular brand of vampirism. I don’t argue, naturally, but it should be noted that, as far as we know, vampirism of any brand is invented, and there are no universal rules. It was fun creating the rules I wanted, which allowed me to develop the characters I had in mind.
What kind of worldbuilding tropes are you tired of? Please share a couple of worlds that have especially impressed you. (Please take Kenyon novels out of the running on this one.)
I would have discussed Kenyon novels if you hadn’t taken them out of the mix! The Entire and the Rose . . . oh, my. The best worldbuilding I have ever read, detailed and effortless and inventive. But you’ve said no, so . . .
The tropes that bother me are the ones that are so blatantly derivative, particularly of Tolkien. I say over and over to my writing students that they have the opportunity to create their own creatures, and there’s no need to use orcs and elves and dwarves borrowed from the great master of high fantasy.
A world that impressed me deeply, and which I think was overlooked when the books first appeared, is Sharon Shinn’s contemporary fantasy world. (The Shifting Circle novels, beginning with The Shape of Desire.) I’m so weary of so-called “urban fantasy,” which evidently feel they have to include every single fantastic creature ever invented, from vampires to werewolves to dragons. Shinn’s world is a wonderful creation, just an eyelash from reality, a seemingly normal world in which shapeshifters move and survive, sometimes just a step away from being exposed. Her characters live and breathe in that unexpected environment, and I fell in love with all of them.
In a series, do you lay in mysteries, trusting that readers will be intrigued and look forward to learning the answer in later books? How do you feel about making the reader wait to learn important world features?
What has worked best for me in a series is one essential unanswered question that takes three to five books to answer. Each individual book needs its own arc, of course. Characters common to all of them are a help, since if the reader cares about the characters, they will want to go on reading to learn the entire story. A great example of that, I think, comes from out of genre. I’m a big fan of the Alphabet Mysteries of Sue Grafton. Every single book is a complete story, but readers come back again and again (twenty-three novels now, I think) in order to follow the life of Kinsey Millhone.
It’s always been my preference to allow the world features to be perceived through the characters’ eyes. I loathe info-dumps, and don’t need, as a reader, to have my story appreciation front-loaded with facts about the world. If the world is cold and snowy for four and a half years, we see that as the characters move through the story. I find that discovery part of the fun of reading a story of the fantastic.
Do you consciously work against reader expectations for a milieu? If so, please give an example of a surprise you brought in to a familiar setting, and how successful you think it was.
Returning to Mozart’s Blood, I suppose I did, only because my vampirism had different rules from the ones with which people were most familiar. I didn’t make that choice, however, in order to work against reader’s expectations, but in order to create a world in which I could tell the story I had in mind. I think it worked out beautifully, but of course, it’s the readers who have to decide!
Any peeks you’re willing to disclose about your next world or what we might learn about the milieu in your next story?
I’m just at the beginning of a novel I think we would have to call historical science fiction. As is so often the case with us writers, I have no idea how to talk about it. Describing my own work is always frustrating, but I can say that it’s related to the flurry of UFO sightings here in Washington State (my home) in the late 1940s. The research is a complete blast!
About this post. Ways into Worldbuilding is a series of interviews I conducted in the summer of 2016 with sf/f writers, asking about their opinion on, and approach to, creating fictional worlds. Watch this space for upcoming interviews with Django Wexler, Tananarive Due, and more amazing writers!