I must confess: I’ve written almost 300,000 words of epic fantasy (three books) and never seen a dwarf’s cavern, an elf’s tree city, or a troll’s rock cairn. Now this might lose me credibility with readers, but after being complimented for my world-building by an editor at an established publishing house, I was asked from where I derive my inspiration for world-building from a fellow writer who is struggling with this important aspect.
My non-fantasy novels, The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale, were both situated in my native England, and my upcoming novel, Unwanted Heroes, is based here in San Francisco. I’m not sure if I chose these surroundings as much as absorbed what is around me into my stories. It is, I guess, what allows me to see elves in coffee shops.
I think the process is the same for me when I build my fantasy worlds. I am blessed to live surrounded by the natural beauty of California and its surrounding states, it is important to not only admire the majesty of the area but see it through the eyes of your protagonists. Three examples come to mind.
I have shared how my journey into the world of fantasy was prompted by my eldest son (then 11-years-old) complaining that I shouldn’t be writing while on vacation. I challenged him to write something with me and make it a family activity (the desperate games we play…) and there under the watchful eyes of the redwoods, we began our journey.
It was easy to see our young heroes seeing these noble trees and the vines that hang in the forest where we were camping. They were ambushed as they passed a rock enclave, almost hidden by moss, that was a five minute bike ride from our tents.
On Monday, I will travel to an annual professional conference in St. Louis, where we have met for the past two years as well. To give us a break from the intensity of the conference, the organizers arranged a trip to a children’s museum. The incredibly creative designers had thought to fill their vast basement with caves and caverns.
While my colleagues snuck off to a nearby bar, I walked through these caverns imagining what it was like to live as a dwarf underground. I’m not sure what my biggest mistake was: missing out on a social mixer or admitting to my colleagues why I had declined their offer.
Finally, this year we traveled to Crater Lake in Oregon. Jutting out from the deep blue waters is an island called Magicians Island. The audio visual told us that the name came because it reminded the explorer of a wizard’s hat. I sat on the ridge overlooking the island, saw the steep grey rocks, the windswept trees, and the ospreys flying overhead.
Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written three epic fantasy novels and the first reached the Quarter Finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award as of March 2012. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@elfwriter).