21 July 2012


Today I am really excited to have author Rachel Hartman joining me on the blog to talk about how she developed the world for her novel Seraphina, what sparked the ideas for it and how did she balance the world building against the characters.

If you've read Seraphina, or even if you're interested in writing, you really must read this insightful and funny account into what went into writing Seraphina.

The world came first, which seemed the natural order of things to me. There was no single moment when it came into being, no Big Bang or separation of the land from the waters. Rather, it came in bits and pieces over many years. 
I had my first inkling when I was twelve and had to write a narrative poem for school. Inspiration struck hard, and I wrote a long poem called “The First Adventure of Sir Amy,” about a little girl knight saving a king from an opera-singing witch. It was quite silly, but it established a number of things: the name Goredd (it rhymed with Fred, the name of Sir Amy’s horse); King Kiggleworth, who later became Prince Lucian Kiggs; and the presence of dragons.  

When I was sixteen, my father took a sabbatical year at Wye College, Kent. I was an avid reader of the English classics, and I was awestruck by the way literature intersects with real life in England. We walked the path of Chaucer’s pilgrims, lived near Jane Austen’s brother’s estate, and were just a short hop from places mentioned in David Copperfield. History was just as palpable and present. Roman walls seemed to converse pleasantly with Georgian houses and Norman churches. I conceived an abiding love for Medieval architecture. The texture of Goredd comes from Canterbury most of all, and from the bucolic hills and close horizons of Kent.  

After university, I wrote and illustrated a comic book for a number of years, and that’s when these disparate elements – things I’d seen, read, and invented – began to solidify into a unified whole. The comic was set in Goredd, and featured a girl named Amy (who was no longer a knight). My love of Medieval history had turned into a large collection of Medieval reference books; I studied the illustrations closely, absorbing details of ornamentation and the forms of everyday objects, and then tried to base my drawings in truth, which was often more astonishing than my imagination. I didn’t want the hackneyed Middle Ages that everyone already knew; I wanted to revive overlooked details and make them live again.  

From the material world grew the cultural world. I wanted there to be religion, or the trappings of religion that interested me most: cathedrals full of candles and statuary, shrines covered with offerings. I was wary of giving offense, so I invented my Saints, very different in nature from Christian saints. My people needed music and medicine, a national epic and history, neighbours and holidays. I put all these things in the comics, learning as I drew, as if my pen were teaching me. I sat back and watched it unveil the world. 

Of course there had to be dragons, because of the dragon in my poem. I soon discovered, however, that I did not enjoy drawing dragons. My dragons all looked like dogs. It was a disaster. I couldn’t bring myself to abandon the idea, however. Luckily, I hit upon a solution: the dragons could take human form.  

And that was the origin of shape-shifting dragons: an expedient of illustration that ended up being a tremendous wellspring of ideas, the happiest of happy accidents.  

So the world has been with me a long time, slowly accumulating detail and depth. I’m not sure whether other writers work this way, or whether it’s my own eccentricity, but once I had the world the characters were easy. The characters generally showed up whole and ready for work; I almost feel like a movie director, and they’re actors I’ve been working with for a long time. Some are what I’d call “utility infielders.” That’s my American roots showing. In baseball, a utility player is one who can play multiple positions. Maybe he’s not the best at any one position, but his flexibility is handy in a pinch. Josef and Lars are of this type; they’ve played a number of different roles over the course of many drafts. 
Having such a well-established world from the beginning allowed the characters space and time to stretch and develop. I must underscore, however, that the world never stops growing. Quighole, the dragon ghetto, was a recent development. I needed something concrete to keep people wary of dragons even after forty years, so I decided there should be an enclave of quigutl (small, flightless dragons who can’t take human shape) in the city. I was telling a friend about this over lunch one day, and she said, “But why do people find the quigs menacing? Are they aggressive pan-handlers?”  

I nearly fell out of my chair laughing at that suggestion. If it makes me laugh, it wins. That is why the book contains pan-handling lizards, and that is how a world grows, piece by piece.

Thank you so much Rachel for taking time to talk about Seraphina! Personally I would love to see Rachel's drawings, even the ones where dragons look like dogs! If you would like to find out more about Rachel Hardman and her book Seraphina you can find it here:


Seraphina was released earlier this week. You can read my review of it here or you can head on over to Amazon to grab yourself a copy.


Heather McCorkle said...

Pan-handling lizards, I love it! LOL! I've been thinking about checking this one out. Now I think I shall have to! :)

Bookworm1858 said...

What a cool post-I loved getting to learn more about the world of Seraphina, which has been my favorite read of July and has given me the warm fuzzies when thinking about the state of YA fantasy.