Sharon Shinn has published 26 novels, one collection, and assorted pieces of short fiction since her first book came out in 1995. Among her books are the Twelve Houses series (Mystic and Rider and its sequels), the Samaria series (Archangel and its sequels), the Shifting Circle series, and the Elemental Blessings series. She lives in St. Louis, loves the Cardinals, watches as many movies as she possibly can, and still mourns the cancellation of “Firefly.” Visit her website at or see her on Facebook at sharonshinnbooks.
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?
Hmmmm. I think I do it because worldbuilding is as much a critical aspect of what I write as a dead body is to a mystery. To make my stories as rich, as tactile, as complete as I want them to be requires coming up with details that illuminate the characters’ lives and placing them in settings that feel real. If I were writing historical fiction, I think I’d try to be just as detailed—because, again, I’d want readers to have a sense of being in a very specific place and time. I don’t know that I’d call this an obligation—it’s just part of the compact between the author and the reader.
I don’t know that I’d call it a pleasure, either. There are times I groan out loud when I think, “Oh no! I have to describe another room! Another outfit! Another meal!” But I’m awfully pleased with myself when I come up with a custom or a detail that I think is particularly cool.
How important is worldbuilding in your novels? Is it a goal for you to create an innovative world, or do you favor having the milieu sit more comfortably in the background?
It’s important, but it’s no more important than creating memorable characters. Actually, I would say I generally want the world to support the plot; I don’t want it to drive the plot.
Do you apply any sort of process to worldbuilding? How does a coherent world emerge in your work?
I usually start out with a couple of elements that are other. That are fantastical and set the tone for the world I’m creating. Then, as I’m writing the book, I add details to reinforce those elements. (So I’ve got angels. What kinds of clothes do they wear? Do they have to sit in special chairs that accommodate their wings? Can they swim?) As my story progresses, I sometimes have to add new elements to fit the plot, or change elements I thought were in place. Thus, it’s a very organic process, and the world tends to grow more vivid and complex as the first draft goes along. Then of course I have to go back to the beginning and harmonize all the details.
Describe a milieu from one your works, and the aspects you found most rewarding. Which ones did readers comment on the most?
Readers have seemed to really respond to the ritual of the blessings in the Elemental Blessings books (Troubled Waters, Royal Airs, Jeweled Fire). (Is this where I mention that you came up with the title for Royal Airs?) In these books, everyone is affiliated with one of the elements of air, earth, water, fire, or wood. The numbers three, five, and eight are considered propitious. There are eight blessings associated with each of the five elements, as well as three extraordinary blessings. When newborns are five hours old, their parents go to a temple and ask three strangers to pull blessings for their children, and these follow them for the rest of their lives. But people also can go to a temple at any point and draw blessings to provide guidance for that day, or for a current enterprise.
I had my webmaster create artwork for the 43 blessings and there’s a printable version posted at http://www.sharonshinn.net/troubledwaters/. I’ve started pulling three blessings every Monday morning and posting them on my Facebook page. Readers will pull their own blessings and let me know what they’ve gotten. A few readers have made their own sets of blessings by painting them on acrylic buttons, for instance. It’s been a lot of fun.
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 love Martha Wells’ Raksura books, which are filled with many races, none of them human, all of them complex and fascinating. Actually, generally speaking, I think she’s one of the best worldbuilders around.
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?
I did that in minor ways in the Twelve Houses books, because I planned them as a series and I had a pretty good idea of my overarching storyline. Most of the rest of the novels that ended up being Book One of a series were not intended as series, so I didn’t have the opportunity to do so! But I actually think it’s a great strategy. Not only does it give readers reasons to go on to the next book, I think it gives them a little thrill when they reread. “Oh, I missed this before, but here’s where she first mentioned the necklace!”
That being said, I’m also generally opposed to cliffhangers in books. I want the ones I read to be complete, so the ones I write tend to be complete. Even if there’s an unsolved mystery, I don’t like it to interfere with the reader’s satisfaction with this one particular story. So I wouldn’t mind making the reader wait to learn important world features as long as the heroine’s life wasn’t at stake in the final pages because those features hadn’t been revealed.
Any peeks you’re willing to disclose about your next world or what we might learn about your latest world in your next book?
The fourth book in the Elemental Blessings series, Unquiet Land, has just come out. The heroine is affiliated with the element of earth, which seems pretty staid until you think about earthquakes, for instance.
I also have a graphic novel, Shattered Warrior, coming out in May. It takes place on a secondary world about ten years after it’s been invaded by members of an alien race, who are still on-planet. So there was a lot of worldbuilding in terms of city ruins and superimposed alien technology. I wrote out the descriptions, but the artist, Molly Ostertag, did an amazing job of bringing the world to life.
Finally, I’m working on a story I hope to turn into my next series—but since it’s still in the very early stages, I don’t think I want to describe it yet! But just as a hint, my keyword for the series is “echo.” It has been as much fun to write as anything I’ve ever done.
In what sense do you mean keyword?
Whenever I’m writing a book, before I have the title, I save my files under some word or phrase that seems apt. When I was writing Archangel, for instance, my keyword was “Gabriel.” One of the later Samaria books had “angel” as its keyword. For the current book, it’s “echo.”
The disorienting side effect to this system is that my mind often associates the keyword with a song, which is then rumbling around in my head for however many months it takes me to write the book. So, while I was writing Archangel, the Christmas song “The Angel Gabriel” followed me around for weeks. Sadly, the only song I know that includes the word “echo” is the Partridge Family’s “Echo Valley 2-6809,” so I’ve been singing that since January. It’s almost enough to make me want to rewrite the book.
About this series. Ways into Worldbuilding is a series of interviews I conducted in the summer and fall of 2016 with sf/f writers, asking about their opinions on, and approach to, creating fictional worlds, especially fantasy worlds.