Thursday, March 1, 2012

Building Fantasy Worlds: Science or Art? Guest post by Tom Kepler

We're pleased to have fantasy author Tom Kepler here today at The Speculative Salon, talking about how he builds fantasy worlds.

I started out with a vague idea one Thanksgiving vacation, thinking that dragons were embodiments of the fabric of creation and that gnomes had an undeserved reputation—pudgy little fellows with long beards and pointy hats.

Suddenly, I was seven thousand words into the novel The Stone Dragon, which is now available in both print and e-formats. This reality has grown to include a sequel in draft version, Dragons of Blood and Stone, and three short stories published as the e-book Who Listened to Dragons.
I’ve been reading about the world-building process and find one can come at it from two directions: top-down and bottom-up. Mine was the bottom-up procedure--imagining enough of the reality to get the story written.

I envy the top-down writers their scientific approach: imagining the entire universe, writing notes and histories, geneologies and topographies, and then finally writing the story. I might even try it someday.

That’s not how I wrote The Stone Dragon, though. At about Draft 3 I did draw a map to provide some visual unity and perspective to my revision.  That original map focused on the area of the Stone Dragon Inn and the country northeast up to Madrone. Although I haven’t front-loaded my writing with research, as time passed I have written about forty “aphorisms of Mage DeVasier,” of which about a half dozen are used in The Stone Dragon, and I’ve also done some genealogical charting when I realized that I wanted some family connections in the stories.

I decided during the drafting of Dragons of Blood and Stone to make the map better, and as I was drawing a more detailed map of the larger area, I just imagined names based on my idea of the terrain and possible life pursuits of the people who lived there. I realized each name I chose, each part of the map, was a possible story. For instance, the area around Seal Rock would be a perfect place for a selkie story. I’ve found that imagination made the map and now the map feeds my imagination.

After a while the reality began to generate its own energy. For instance, the character Emreel, in the short story “Who Listened to Dragons,” is the great-grandfather of Glimmer, the main character of The Stone Dragon

Dragons of Blood and Stone moves around in the Freelands: from the Slag Hills of Eyre to the Eagle Caps. Places and events mentioned in The Stone Dragon are fleshed out in the sequel. One of the short stories in my e-book is set on the Easypeace River (“River’s Daughter”), and the short story, “T ‘Uk’s Dilemma,” provides glimpses of Knight’s Landing and Madrone Castle prior to the time of The Stone Dragon.

I plan to write more short stories and publish them as Tales of the Stone Dragon Inn after publishing Dragons of Blood and Stone. The development within those three books will provide characters and background that allow the storyline of the series to travel across the Eagle Caps, leaving the magic of the Freelands and entering the iron-bound reality of the Empire. Then, God granting, a trilogy will unfold.

Anyone wanting to follow along for the ride is welcome.

excerpt from The Stone Dragon

An awful knowingness entwined Glimmer. Like the tightening coils of a constricting serpent, an intuitive knowingness encircled him until all doubt left, like breath crushed within muscled coils.

“Ye both’ll have much t’ talk about,” Cabbage-pants had said; “. . . ’tween you and the hearthstone,” he had said.

Placing his mug carefully upon the flagstones, Glimmer slowly stood, strode with heavy deliberateness to that legacy of when the tower had stood alone, strode to the ancient, reinforced door that connected the kitchen with the house’s communal room. Opening the door, he stepped into the large room, empty and dusty from disuse, his footsteps echoing.

He turned and faced the room’s hearth, his eyes without surprise taking in the sight of a lively fire crackling in the firepit, a fire of dancing and glowing light vibrant with energy, and all this manifesting from a meager collection of sticks and branches bunched upon the firestones. Light rippling upon the mantelpiece, light drawing arabesques upon Glimmer’s arms, light reflecting off stone—and then one stone high upon the stonework above the firepit—a single, oval obsidian stone captured light . . . and blinked.

excerpt from the short story “Who Listened to Dragons

I was a young man who thought I knew the world and owned it—right up to the moment I opened my fist and found it empty.

Twelve years I had lived and my brother Saleef six. In the city of il-Barat, he was the strange one, and I the brother of the strange one. Staring and listening made people uncomfortable, and when Saleef fell to unreasonable angers and struck himself or others, I would drag him home. Mother would hold him, father would pace, my brother's eyes would follow, soothed by the rhythms of his footsteps. Mother would weave, the cloth sighs of her handloom whispering to my brother, he sitting beside her as she wove her miniature tapestries.

Biography: Tom Kepler has been a classroom teacher for grades 7-12 for over thirty years. A teacher of the Transcendental Meditation program, he has taught at Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment, Fairfield, Iowa, since the fall of 2005.

His current project, entitled Dragons of Blood and Stone, a sequel to The Stone Dragon, will be available by the end of 2012. Other publications include Love Ya Like a Sister, a realistic young adult novel, and Bare Ruined Choirs, a book of poetry.

Tom Kepler Writing (blog & webpage)

The Stone Dragon
Amazon (Book and Kindle)
Barnes and Noble (Book & Nook)
Smashwords (all ebook formats)

Who Listened to Dragons--Short Stories


EW Gibson said...


Wonderful post! Loved how drawing your map, which btw is marvelous, created story ideas. Do you have any suggestions how to draw maps?


Ella Gray said...

I also use the bottom-up approach for urban fantasy and steampunk. I try to just figure it out as I'm writing, and I make a lot of notes during a first draft. Great post, Tom!

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