Mermaids, Magic, and String Theory: How Authors Create Fantasy Worlds

Transcript by Hadley Willman, grade 11

Photos by Katie Ferguson


The second panel of the Pasadena Loves YA event was called Mermaids, Magic, and String Theory: How Authors Create Fantasy Worlds. Participating panel speakers were Josephine Angelini, author of the Worldwalker trilogy, Tobie Easton, author of the Mer Chronicles, Shannon Messenger, author of the Sky Fall trilogy, and Evelyn Skye, moderator and author of the Crown’s Game series.

ES: Since we’re here to talk about creating worlds, how do you create such rich, imaginative worlds? Tell us a little bit about your worlds to give us an idea. Do you do research, are you inspired by books, movies, other things, or does it all come out of thin air?

SM: I actually build worlds all the time. I feel a lot of it is observing and paying attention to things, saying, “Oh, that’s a cool hat! Let’s make something out of this.” I find that Wikipedia is amazing for fiction; if you’re writing nonfiction, watch out. It is amazing what is on there and how you can fall down this rabbit hole. My series is about air elementals. I am a nerd and I have always been fascinated by wind, and the fact that everything from a gentle breeze on a hot day to a tornado that can take down an entire town are the same force, just more of it in one than the other, has always intrigued me. So I kept thinking what someone would be like if they could control that force and how they would do it. I like to not use magic for my mythology because I feel like J.K. Rowling will have had a cooler idea than anything I could come up with, so I tend to go on either a science route, or in this case I went with language. I thought what if the wind was actually speaking a language and someone could understand? Would the wind disobey or would it obey too well? That idea built from there.

TE: My series is about mermaids.In the opening, the mermaids had been living on land for about 20 years. My main character’s parents started this community when they had had enough wars in the ocean and they wanted a safer life. It’s interesting because they’ve already established this community and set it up before the book’s opening, so at the start, I had to think about how this would work. How could you have mermaids surviving on land? So the way I made this happen is that they all live in Malibu, in tiny beach estates. There’s a grotto system underneath everybody’s houses that is connected to this community so they can have their tails in the water and then come up above ground and masquerade as humans. It was fun to think about it on a day-to-day basis: what do they eat? How do they run this world? How do they stay hidden? How do they work with the government? Where do they get their money? I had so much fun with it because I’ve loved mermaids since I was six, so it was fun to think these things through. They have a very oral culture so their expressions are different from ours. We [humans] have so many expressions that revolve around feet or legs, like to trip over your words. They don’t trip over their words; they don’t trip. So all of their expressions have to be different. Now I’m writing a sequel with more underwater elements, so that’s a whole different world.

JA: I just have really crazy dreams, so that’s usually where I start with an idea. I start with a theme, with something I really want to say. For the Worldwalker trilogy, I was haunted by this idea that if I ever met this other version or parallel-universe version of me, we would hate each other. You know when you hear your voice on a phone answering machine and your whole body cringes? I wanted to explore the theme of being your own worst enemy, so I thought of a way to actually be your own worst enemy through parallel universes and witches. My first series was based on Greek mythology and it was basically a retelling of the Trojan war. So if you can’t come up with an idea, just go and find a really good one. It works. For me, world building is finding something you are interested in and going from there. What we’ve all been talking about is finding something you can’t stop thinking about and that’s when you know that that should be your story.

SM: It helps me to think of a “why.” This drives my husband crazy, since I go to him when I get stuck. I’ll say that they’re eating a new food, and he’ll say, okay. Ice cream that doesn’t melt. This is where I ask why. Why would they eat that, why would they want that? This is usually where he says, “Well, in Star Wars…” and I walk away from the conversation. I like there to be logic to it because there are infinite possibilities when you start world building, so if I’m making that choice, I like to have a reason why I’m making it, and that helps me to not drown in the indecision of it. I have to start deciding the why and then I can write it down.

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ES: Speaking of the why, you sell the book, you submit a manuscript, but it’s not perfect. My editor kept pushing me on my world building. “Why did these characters do this? Why is the game set up this way?” I was wondering if you went through this. How much of an influence does your editor have on your world building? How much of this is a collaborative process?

JA: I am a huge outliner. People always ask if I’m a “pantser” or a “plotter.” I am a crazy plotter with these 36 page outlines but then I write really long series so it works out. I have to have everything figured out before I start working on my characters because characters change the plot. My world is normally worked out before I give it to anyone. I can’t give pages, I have to write it all and then give it to my agent because I can’t explain it to her, I have to write it. I’ve always had people say they don’t get it. And it’s always in the clarification process, when they’re asking questions: that’s when you realize you haven’t been clear enough and you have to fix that problem.

TE: I’m back in the exposition because I’ll have written the first draft, I’ll mention something for the first time, explain everything at once, and in the editing process I’ll cut it all. So with my agent it was a lot of, “Well, I want more detail, add it back in. I want the original story of the Little Mermaid because readers might only be following Disney and might not know that the original story was so much darker.” For me, it’s adding back in a lot of those little pieces so you get more peeks into that world. Keep all that stuff you cut out, because you’ll need it back in!

SM: I go through the same thing. My editor always asks for clarification on something. She always plays a big role in my world building, not changing it but it has more to do with the fact that it’s this monster with eighteen heads. She’ll say, maybe we can get away with fifteen heads. My editor helps me to realize we don’t need this, and then I’ll get a million emails from readers saying that this character doesn’t make enough of an appearance, and I’ll  blame my editor. It can’t be 3000 pages, we have to stop at some point, and I’ll fight for each and every one of those pages. The thing is, my brain will remember writing something down, so I’ll have to go back and check if the idea exists in something I deleted or if it made it to the final cut.

ES: It’s the same thing for me! The audible version of my book just came out. I was listening to the narrator to see how she did all the different character voices, and it’s strange because I know certain versions of the book so well. But then, anything we edited towards the end when I was living off of cookie dough and no sleep, I won’t remember those changes.

ES: Speaking of that originality, there’s the idea that there are only five original stories. How do you as a writer continue to keep things fresh or try to keep them original?

TE: I like to subvert certain tropes, and do them the way I wish I was seeing them. We write the book we wish we could read. When I started writing Emerge, we were seeing a lot of YA heroines that didn’t do that much. They were waiting for some cool guy to do a lot of stuff, and we’re seeing a lot of these kickass heroines now, but we were seeing a lot of girls who were down on themselves or enamored with the guy who would drive the plot, even though she would be the protagonist. I started thinking: what if the girl had the powers? What if she was the cool creature and what if she loved the boy not because he was some interesting, alluring creature, but just because he was a good human guy who was nice and cool and saw something in her? I like exploring that relationship. As I was writing and editing it, we were seeing a lot of cool female characters who rejected a lot of the feminine. It’s great; we need those characters who can pick up the bow and the axe and wear the leather pants and run after the monster. But I feel like we also need the girl in the dress who likes lipstick and that’s not a problem. We need those heroines, too. I like subverting tropes like that, and if we all continue to do that, every book will be original.

SM: Sure, there are only five stories, but there are no two people alike. I try to focus on the characters as I’m writing, so even if what they’re experiencing is some chosen-one scenario, you’ve never seen it happen to my character. They’ve never seen how my character is going to react in that situation and you’ve never heard what my character is going to think about that. I will build the world and focus on the characters before the plot and asking myself what the character would do and it changes things based on the character. I’m big on letting the characters make the stakes, because that way the plot isn’t happening to them, the plot is a result of the choices of the characters I’m writing. That way I feel like I end up somewhere that’s unique even if you can find something to take away that is in every single book. There are no two stories, but you’re going to get a different take on it. Hopefully that makes it different enough.

ES: We’ve been talking a lot about characters. Are they based on real people? For me, my boyfriend always makes fun of me for not watching people. He says, how can you be a writer and not be a people watcher?

JA: There are so many people in your life, I don’t feel like you even need to go out into the world and observe. I just know so many people. I grew up as the youngest of eight kids, so I don’t think I’ll ever run out of material. For Worldwalker, I called my sister Martha, and said, hey, you’re Julia. She even looks like you. I borrow people all the time. People don’t recognize themselves, either. I’ve given people the same name and they don’t know.

SM: See, I am the opposite. I live in fear of bringing someone into my book that they would recognize because I like to let really bad things happen to my characters. I feel like it would be bad, and then I would start to shy away from letting things happen to my characters. I have one sister, so if I were to put her in a book, she would know, and she would not be happy. What I found is that the only thing I really need to know about the characters is what they don’t want me to know. I want to know what they’re hiding from me. As soon as I know that, I own them, because I know exactly what I need to have happen. An author’s job is to torture imaginary people. I shape my characters from there, trying to figure out both something good they won’t tell me as well as something dark in their closet, whether it’s an insecurity or something big. I write that and then they become their own person in my head.

TE: Mine is similar. If I’m having trouble finding a character, I don’t base them off of people in the beginning, I base them off of characteristics. Sometimes things will seep in from people I know as I’m writing. I outline the plot obsessively, and if I’m having trouble writing characters, I figure out where they have to end up because they need to start out not there. This book is a lot about figuring out when to bend rules you’ve always followed, so it meant my character had to start out as somebody who really followed rules and had great reasons for doing it and had never deviated from that. As she gains motives, and she starts questioning that, she can’t get there if she doesn’t start a certain way. She has to grow. In that way I let my plot determine my characters.

SM: I have found that I can’t outline because I do like to let my character make series. Writing sequels was brutal. For the third book, I told myself I was finally going to outline. I must have spent two months on this 30-page outline, scene by scene, telling myself I’ve got this. And then in chapter three, I realized that my character would actually more likely do this, and then I lost my entire outline. So I realized it doesn’t work for me. I call my method connecting the dots. I need to know my ending point for the book, it helps if I know it for the whole series, and then I know the big reversals that I’m going to put in. I know when I’m going to give the characters something good and then when I’m going to take something away. I don’t know the order or how they’re going to get there and I certainly don’t plan too much because I want to have the organic stuff come in, but I have these little dots and the book is my journey to connect them.

ES: I feel the same way. I wrote an entire sequel and my editor basically told me, that’s the wrong book, so there’s a secret dead book out there.

JA: As I write, I’ve discovered entire characters I didn’t know were going to be in my outline. There’s stuff that always surprises you no matter how much you think you’re going to plan.

ES: My sequel writing was my horror story. Do you have any horror stories, sad stories?

JA: I wrote Firewalker while I was pregnant, and I wrote Witch’s Pyre right after I had my baby, so I was a new mom with my first baby and she wasn’t a good sleeper. I would get up at four in the morning to write and I was exhausted, full of hysterical new mommy tears. I would be there crying in front of my coffee maker, telling myself to pull it together and write. That was the hardest journey of writing because I wasn’t focused, but you have to be focused when you write.

TE: I feel like I’m going through mine right now. In a good way! I wrote Emerge, my first book, before I had an agent or a publisher or deadlines. I’m writing my second book now and it’s the first time I’m writing where I’m getting input from outside voices on the first book as I write the second one. Not just my editor or my agent but from readers! It’s the people who love the first book who are doing it to me. I get all these wonderful messages that scare me. They’re expecting the second book, so it brings the expectations up from when I wrote the first book still wondering if anyone else liked mermaids. But I’m almost done. Maybe tomorrow.

SM: Sequels just keep getting harder. I wish someone had told me that because I thought, shouldn’t it be getting easier? But you’re trying to one-up yourself. The last thing you want to hear is that someone likes the other book better. Then decisions you make in book one limit your options for book four. My editor would tell me to write what I thought was best, and I would think, you just want me to sell as many books as possible. I got into this crippling self-doubt over every decision and I almost ended up in the hospital. Word to the wise, if you’re drinking too much coffee all day, make sure you’re drinking enough water. It’s a hard job, but it’s wonderful torture.

ES: What are your favorite kinds of scenes to write? Kissy scenes, action scenes?

JA: The easiest scenes for me to write are action sequences. I’m always like, I just wrote 10 pages!

TE: I like anything with romantic tension, where you want them to kiss.

SM: For me, I like humor. I’m totally that author who sits there cracking herself up over her own jokes. The characters become so real that sometimes I sit there and think, where did that come from? I would never say that. For me, if I’m having two characters bantering, I can crank out ten thousand words an hours.

ES: If you’re allowed to say, what are you working on now?

JA: I finished a book Thursday. It’s one of those things where you think, “I’m done?” It’s my first middle grade book, and so that was a surprise, too. I was wandering around Friday thinking about how I had nothing to do, nothing to write. It’s crazy.

TE: I might be done with my sequel tomorrow.

SM: I’m juggling two deadlines at the moment that I’m really not supposed to talk about but I will be vague about anyway. Obviously, one is the next book in the Keeper series. I’ve also sold another middle grade that’s a stand-alone that is coming out in 2018. It’s not due until March but I’m also illustrating parts of it, so I want to get it done as soon as possible so I can second guess the illustrations. I do Sharpie art, so it’s simple, but whimsical in the same way. I asked my editor what she would think of illustrations on the chapter titles, and she loved it. I’ll sleep sometime in 2020. What about you?

ES: I’m on break right now, getting copy edits on my sequel. Okay, so today is the 17th, I checked to make sure. Grab the book in front of you, go to page 17, and find your favorite sentence or two.

TE: This is the first time we see my character transforming. “Transforming creates the familiar feel of ocean tides pushing and pulling against my legs. I’m connected to the sea, connected to its magic, connected to the generations of Merpeople who have come before me. The bones and muscles shift and fuse and it feels so good, like I can finally stretch out.”

SM: I’m in a dark moment. “He’s brought no guard and carries no weapon but he needs none. One carefully chosen word can beat me, break me, ruin me a million unimaginable ways. I’ve seen the effects of his methods firsthand, and the memory alone of the thousands of holes born through Aston’s body is enough to make my knees shake so hard I have to steady myself against the wall. And Aston was simply a captured Gale, not someone suspected of speaking Westerly. I’m stronger than this. I am.” So my poor character.

JA: “I’m trying to understand all this in a rational way,” Juliet says, spreading her arms wide to include the silver knives, the salt, the vinegar, and the strange symbols Rowan had painted on the square of black silk. “I’ve seen magic work, and I’m trying to make sense of it, but I can’t shake the feeling that you’re involved.  Rowan, were you the one that burned my sister?” BOOM!

ES: Mine is where Nikolai, one of the enchanters, is a little boy and this mysterious woman shows up in her village. She says, “I am the Countess Galina Zakrevskaya and I have come for you.”

ES: If you were a rock star, and you had to choose one food provided for you in your trailer, what would it be?

SM: Pepsi. The whole sugar, calorie-filled kind. None of that diet stuff.

TE: Cookie dough, we talked about this earlier.

JA: I’m a cheese and salami girl.

ES: I’ll have to have a soda war with you and say Coke Zero. Although, we wouldn’t fight over who could drink what. Favorite TV show?

SM: Stranger Things. I’ll also throw Sherlock in there, because Cumberbatch needs to be mentioned.

TE: Stranger Things. Buffy the Vampire Slayer forever, but Downton Abbey for now.

JA: Star Trek Next Generation.

ES: If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

SM: Teleportation. Especially when I’m on book tour.

TE: Teleportation or the ability to read people’s minds, but I don’t know if I’d really want that.

SM: I wouldn’t. Reading reviews has opened my eyes to that. Ignorance is bliss.

JA: I’d settle for being able to swim. I aim low. I’m pretty useless all around. I can write, I can usually walk in a straight line, but that’s it.

ES: If you were a character in a comic book, what would your name be?

SM: Tired Girl.

JA: I’d probably be the sidekick next to the guy who has powers.

TE: I’m sometimes really bossy, so I’d go with TobieTator, which is a real nickname.

Then it was time for some audience questions. Here were a couple of the best questions and answers.

FAN: How do you come up with places? I’m stuck in California.

SM: I play the what-if game. What if it was a beach, or what if it was a mountain? It seems to be that the more crazy the idea is, the more my brain starts to originally reject it, but then, what if it was? Writing a series, it’s more a process of elimination. What haven’t I done? In the beginning it was just what felt special.

TE: Well, I set my book in Malibu. You can do an interesting spin on something familiar. You can immerse yourself in a different mindset, whether it’s taking a weekend trip or going somewhere that doesn’t feel like LA, or watching a lot of Youtube videos. Just get in that mindset.

JA: Every single book I’ve written takes place in Massachusetts. It doesn’t matter. Write what you know, write what’s familiar to you. I grew up in a stupid little town and I have not stopped writing about it since I left.

FAN: I hate writing happy chapters. How do I get through it?

TE: You don’t have to have a happy ending. It can be ambiguous. You can only write what you can write. If you ignore your instincts, you might never get to that final place.

SM: It can be hopeful and not happy. Don’t write what you think you want to write. If you’re interested in it, you’ll find a way to hook the reader into it.

Teen Blogger

Teens blog about a variety of topics: book reviews, event recaps, book lists, poems, stories, interviews, and opinions. If you are a teen and interested in writing for us, please email Jane Gov at jgov@cityofpasadena.net. You must live in Pasadena and/or attend our events.

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