Where do you get your ideas? is a question writers are often asked. But the question that interests me more is ‘where do the ideas for an entire fantasy world come from’? Having already blogged about the cultures and characters in my YA Fantasy Trilogy, I took the question to three fellow SFF authors: Joyce Reynolds-Ward, Mindi Briar and J.F.R. Coates.
How did you develop your magic system(s)?
I love magic. A well-done magic system can add a huge amount of depth and interest to a world, and it’s no a surprise I’ve found a way to include magic in every story I’ve written so far.
I believe there are several important factors to consider when coming up with a magic system. How widespread is this magic system? Who can use it? What is the source of magic? And how is it used?
With my sci-fi series, I took a different approach. I worked hard to make something separate to the Force in Star Wars, so I linked the magic to the subspace dimension that also controls the setting’s FTL travel. Only a select few can utilise this magic, and it allows for the manipulation of inorganic matter. There is even one character who can sense the ripples of distant events through this dimension, giving him a limited ability to see into the future. Knowledge of this magic is strictly controlled by the religious fascist antagonists, so exploration of these newly-developed powers is just one of the many ways the main protagonist can break away from his old life.
In the Goddess’s Honour world, magic is tied to tangible things. It’s present in the land to various degrees, and the leaders of various nations must be able to channel and control that land’s magical strength in order to lead. Some nations require that the prospective leaders be able to weave a Tapestry or create some other sort of artefact that is reflective of the combination of their strength and the land’s.
In Becoming Solo, each chapter has an epigraph from assorted guides to that world’s particular form of witchcraft. Since Solo is, essentially, 4H Style Revue with magic, I needed a magic system that could be incorporated into clothing –and a reason for why it was so important for the woman winning assorted Crowns–Style, in this case to win those crowns, as well as what it meant to the magic system.
The “magic” in the Halcyon universe derives from the existence of alien dragons, who are able to teleport and read minds. I hate long travel scenes and wanted a way for my characters to travel between planets instantaneously. The dragons became intense pacifists who won’t teleport anyone they perceive as distressed, which means that pilots often have to take calming drugs. That prompted a bunch of questions about what it would mean for humanity to be in a symbiotic relationship with aliens.
In Adrift in Starlight, the dragons are revealed to be hiding the existence of other alien races from humans to protect the aliens. Later in the series, as the trust between humans and dragons breaks down, humans begin working on ways to steal the dragons’ power for themselves using genetic modification. This results in a group of humans who have dragon-like powers —the excuse I needed to give my characters “magic” but keep it plausible in the realm of science fiction.
What informs secular culture in your world?
This largely depends on what genre I’m writing, as that can play a big part into my vision for the world. My fantasy setting of Farenar tends to be one that I would like to live in – there is still conflict there, with wars between the gods and different interpretations of magic providing plenty to keep interesting, but I don’t tend to include a lot of the bigotry present in our world.
My sci-fi series, on the other hand, was a look towards the future of this world. I considered what might happen a few hundred years into the future if a few certain key events played out – largely revolving around the rise of the Catholic Church returning to a place of utmost power, like it had wielded in the Medieval Ages. This resulted in a pretty grim fascist empire controlling two of the three star systems humanity had reached. This also gave me a chance to explore the third system through the story, with all the issues and problems they face.
Quite honestly, I’m writing a world I would want to live in. I got into solarpunk back in 2015, and that’s been a huge inspiration for the planet Halcyon. I came at it with the mindset of, “If I got dropped on a new planet to build a society from the ground up, how would I structure it?” So I made it a socialist utopia where everyone works together for the common good, with the dragons as telepathic enforcers to keep everyone honest. It took a lot of drafts to fully flesh out my ideas, and half of it doesn’t even hit the page until book 3 in the series.
The other planets in the Halcyon universe are the late-stage capitalism foil to Halcyon’s socialism. There’s environmental damage, prison slavery, wealthy people taking too many resources…the Imperial government is kind of my take on where society could go if nothing ever changes.
How did you decide who would occupy positions of power?
Characters in positions of power come in various forms in my stories – I definitely have a few with noble goals and intentions, but probably an equal number who abuse that power. Some even sway from one side to the other. The type of character they are can depend a lot on what my intentions for that power structure are. It is no coincidence that those in power in the fascist empire of the Reborn setting are older white men.
Monarchy and hereditary rule isn’t always portrayed as evil in my worlds, but it does lean that way more often than not. I like to display it as a flawed system, even when the characters in power have the best of intentions. This is certainly shown through the Destiny of Dragons fantasy series, where two of the main characters get their opportunity to rule, with varying levels of success.
Positions of power are tied to both leadership roles and the favour of the Seven Crowned Gods in the Goddess’s Honour world.
In Becoming Solo, leadership roles are earned by proof of magical strength and becoming a Solo-qualified magician, either by Academy graduation or else winning Fair Crowns. Otherwise, the witch either loses their power or must join a family spell matrix, where their power joins with others to produce magical goods. Solo magicians get to take credit for their creation. Family spell matrix participants are not identified in the products that the family creates for the use of those who are magical and non-magical.
In early drafts, Halcyon was ruled by a queen. It was my fantasy-world default, because who doesn’t love a good royalty story? However, the deeper I dove into worldbuilding, the more obvious it became that a monarchy was fundamentally incompatible with the idea of a socialist community. It had to become a democracy. But I still left the dragons in charge because their control of human culture had interesting implications that I wanted to explore.
In contrast, all the other planets in the Halcyon Universe are controlled by an emperor—one man with absolute power. This is portrayed as problematic in a number of ways that are, again, based on my frustrations with real-world systems of government.
What inspired religions?
Religion takes a massive role in both of my settings. In the Reborn series, the entire conflict revolves around the position of the Catholic Church as the primary antagonist. I took a deliberate look at the church in the modern day and extrapolated out what I believed to be a logical conclusion, should the church be guided by the will of corrupt and power-hungry minds. These are people who do not care about the heart of the religion (which I intentionally did not criticise throughout the story), but are instead guided only by their own ambition. This is a religion that has been weaponised into something truly monstrous. Looking at how the world has developed since I first started writing the series, sometimes I wonder if I did not go far enough.
By contrast, the Farenar setting portrays religion much more positively. If anything, the religion spawned the world in my mind – it all started with the gods. They live, breathe, and walk through the world and are a big part of the many conflicts. Most of them seek to better the world, but some of their number seek instead to rule it.
Writing a made-up religion based on the dragons turned out to be an interesting way to deconstruct my personal IRL beliefs. Writing characters who were discovering big, life-changing truths about the universe was a way for me to dive deep into what I thought those truths were for myself. (And that’s the short version of how writing magical sci-fi helped me leave a cult…lol.) Anyway, I wouldn’t say the Halcyon Universe’s religion is an exact representation of my spiritual beliefs, but there are scenes, settings, and situations very heavily based on my religious past, with something of a rose-tinted filter over them.
What other sources of inspiration does your world draw on?
So many of my inspirations come from the great authors who wrote rich and vivid worlds before me. I may not take directly from their work, but their writing has always inspired me to improve me own. My favourite authors will always include Neil Gaiman, Robin Hobb, and Philip Pullman. Our stories may be very different, but they are certainly my inspirations.
Other inspirations can come from strange places. One WiP series has been inspired by my childhood in Somerset, my fascination with an island in the Bristol Channel, and local myths.
The Reborn series was spawned because a friend told me to “turn him [main character] into a stoat.” So I did. And I wrote four books to explain why.
Reading fantasy and sci-fi inspires me all the time! I love to read books with lush, creative, wild descriptions that transport me somewhere new. It kickstarts my own imagination and forces me to think about different aspects of my own worldbuilding. A fantasy about road construction? Yeah, hmm, who builds the roads in my world? Or I’ll pick up a book that’s created a totally unique social culture and it’ll force me to think about how my world’s culture would be different.