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Worldbuilding with C.S.E. Cooney

Guest posts for the Ways into Worldbuilding series will appear most Wednesdays through early November. This week’s guest is C.S.E. Cooney.

C. S. E. Cooney ( is the author of the World Fantasy-nominated

collection Bone Swans: Stories (Mythic Delirium 2015). The Nebula Award-finalist title story appears in Paula Guran’s Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Novellas 2016.  She is the author of the Dark Breakersseries, Jack o’ the Hills, The Witch in the Almond Tree, and a poetry collection called How to Flirt in Faerieland and Other Wild Rhymes, which features her Rhysling Award-winning poem “The Sea King’s Second Bride.” Her short fiction and poetry can be found at Uncanny Magazine, Lakeside Circus, Black Gate, Papaveria Press, Strange Horizons, Apex, GigaNotoSaurus, Goblin Fruit, Clockwork Phoenix 3 & 5The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, Rich Horton’s Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy anthologies, and elsewhere.

Do you apply any sort of process to worldbuilding? How does a coherent world emerge in your work?

One way I’ve done it is to start with a character. Who is my protagonist? What is her home life like? Is it normal for the place and time she lives in? If not, how so? What sort of town or city does her home reside in? What is her town or city’s importance to her country? (Podunk? Capital?)

How was her country founded, and by whom? Who are its gods, its scientists, its wizards, its artists, its fighters? (What does my protagonist believe in? Is she traditional? Is she in for a rude awakening?) What language(s) do its citizens speak? What are the roots of this language (and therefore of this country)?

Who are this country’s heroes? (Of these, whom does my protagonist uphold or reject? How do their legends shape her?) Who are this country’s rulers? Are they competent? Elected? Designed? Inherited? (Is my protagonist an ally? A rebel? Indifferent to politics?) What is this country’s relationship to its neighbors? How does the political climate affect this country—and therefore its citizens—and therefore my protagonist? How does her world affect her? How does she affect her world?

Now, this is not necessarily the work of a single draft. I don’t sit there and ask myself all these questions, answer them in tidy summary, and THEN write the story. Possibly I ought to!

But it’s often more organic and chaotic than that. Usually, the world emerges more resplendently with every draft I write. As the protagonist acquires depths—and a rich inner landscape—so too does her out landscape become less of a sketch, more of a 3-D to-scale model. Their evolutions interlock. The process is unpredictable and organic. So much is written that can’t be used in-text, but it’s there, influencing the text.

Describe a milieu from one your works, and the aspects you found most rewarding. Which ones did readers comment on the most?

Another way I build a world is to start with a what-if.

Sometimes that what-if ends up as an interesting but empty world, which I set aside. It might twiddle its thumbs and hum tunelessly for years—until one day, a character swaggers along, her story in a sack upon her back, and says, “So, I’m homeless and up for any adventure. What have you got for me?”

This is how I made Bellisaar (of “Godmother Lizard” and “Life on the Sun”). It began with a what-if:

What if there was a desert, like the desert I grew up in (the Sonoran Desert, in the Southwest of the United States)—but what if it also like the mythical deserts I grew up reading about (specifically, in One Thousand and One Nights)? What if there were cacti and scorpions and rattlesnakes and dust storms, but also flying carpets, talismanic gems, and small deities who’ll readily interfere in your life?

What if, like the desert I grew up in, this desert has a history of oppression and broken treaties and bloodshed? What if there are also giants? And monsters that look like people? And bureaucrats who are monstrous?

And what if there are sunsets the like of which I’ve never seen since I moved to greener lands? And what if tears, like any waste of water in the desert, are considered at best rude and at worst criminal?

I wrote pages and pages of notes. But that was for the sake of the world itself. It had no plot; not a single soul populated it. Nothing ever happened there. Maybe a coyote ate a cactus wren from time to time.

So there it sat, vacant and lonely for years—until one story I’d tried to write several times in a sometimes contemporary, sometimes near-future Dystopian Earth-setting reared its head and said, “You know what? This ain’t working. Know what else? There’s this SWORD-AND-SORCERY magazine you could submit us to. If you just gave us a sword, and some sorcery, and maybe dumped us into a SECONDARY WORLD SETTING, we could really BE something! And you DO have that weird empty magic desert just sitting there, all dusty and sunshiny. Just sayin’.”

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?

Oh, well, as far as novels go—I’m only just finishing the first book of a trilogy RIGHT NOW! It’s called Miscellaneous Stones: Necromancer, and yes, I have very happily laid the groundwork for Books 2 and 3!

What I figured was, Book 1 is sort of “getting to know you.” We meet the protagonist, enjoy and despair at her (fairly sheltered) worldview, watch it crack apart, and—hopefully—applaud when she starts her reluctant trudge toward a strange horizon.

In Book 2, I will aim my protagonist at countries she’s only ever read or heard about. She will walk new lands with her own feet, smell new spices, eat new foods, learn new languages. She will become a Woman of the World, so that by Book 3, her actions will help shape the world—and make new history.

And the world itself will, of course, emerge for us through her eyes. I shall have to establish what that world used to be, what it is now, what it could be—how it is endangered, fragile,  I anticipate an exciting, if excruciatingly slow, writing process!

In my Dark Breakers novellas (a trilogy in novellas, starting with “The Breaker Queen” and “The Two Paupers”), I strewed the ground with hints in Books 1 and 2 of what is to come. Each novella focuses on a new pair of characters, but all the characters are present from the get-go. There are also three worlds involved in the Dark Breakers’ uber-plot, and all three intersects in one house—Breaker House—modeled after The Breakers, a mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. The house is slightly different in each world: Day Breakers, Dark Breakers, and Breakers Beyond.

The city where the story takes place—Seafell—is modeled after fin-de-siècle Newport, but it’s also a fast-forward-on-the-timeline version of a city I’ve written about before, in my fairy tale “How the Milkmaid Struck a Bargain with the Crooked One” and a short story called “The Last Sophia.” So, apart from its Earthly inspiration, Seafell already has a history and myth of its own that sets it further apart from Newport, and deeper into its own niche.

Any peeks you’re willing to disclose about your next world or what we might learn about the milieu in your next story?

I recently wrote a short story called “Lily-White and the Thief of Lesser Night” for an anthology that draws its inspiration from Lewis Carroll’s “Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass.”  But I didn’t write in EITHER of these worlds; I invented a new one, so I didn’t have to play by Carroll’s rules.

It’s called THE WABE.

I stole that name right out of Carroll’s poem “The Jabberwocky,” and also from the ensuing discussion that Alice and Humpty-Dumpty have about the poem’s meaning—which is all nonsense of course.

“And ‘the wabe’ is the grass-plot round a sun-dial, I suppose?” said Alice, surprised at her own ingenuity.

 “Of course it is. It’s called ‘wabe,’ you know, because it goes a long way before it, and a long way behind it.”

My world—the Wabe—therefore, is a HUGE SUNDIAL! The villages are dotted all around the numbers. Each village a Lesser Night in addition to Greater Night. What time their Lesser Night falls depending on when the shadow of Mount Gnomon passes over them. The mountain—of course, is the time-keeper at the center of the Dial.

There’s a place called Cheshiretown, where all the Cheshire Bears and Cheshire Hyenas and Cheshire Pygmy Marmosets live. And there’s a Hetch at the bottom of the Dial, who regularly mows a new Motto into the grass—always in Latin, of course. It was hugely fun to write, and I love my two girl heroes—sisters, named Lily-White and Ruby-Red.

They, of course, will grow up to be the two great Queens of Carrollian Legend. But don’t tell them that! They’re too busy having adventures to listen anyway.

Bone Swans at


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, Louise Marley, Sharon Shinn, and more amazing writers!


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