I’ve had people ask me what made me decide on a desert setting. My usual response involves a blank stare and a fumbling attempt to make “I haven’t the foggiest” sound like a rational answer. Once in a while I launch into the story I told in my previous post on this topic, and really, the proper answer is much the same: someone critiqued the Kingdom of Salt manuscript and said it was too standard-Euro-Medieval-white.
I agreed, and set about trying to fine-tune the various details into a different shape. That’s the point at which I started asking the Big World questions: where and how life developed, who the various gods were, what happened to atheists, who the vegetarians were as opposed to who raised cattle (and where to find bacon, cheese, chocolate, and coffee–very important items to the development of civilization, as far as I’m concerned!), why humanity had moved from point A to point B, and why nobody had done the equivalent of the route-to-China schtick.
Short answer on that last: I was feeling lazy and didn’t want that complication. I knew that wouldn’t fly as a reason, so I had to come up with a plausible reason why travel to date had been restricted to the one large continent. That reason is not mentioned anywhere in the Children of the Desert series, mind you, although it is hinted at during the end bit of Fires of the Desert. I may or may not reveal it in subsequent series, or in special mini-stories along the way. But it’s in my Secret Background Notes. Mwah.
Back to the question of uniqueness. Essentially, I referred to the many excellent guides scattered across the Internet about the worst fantasy mileu tropes, cross-checked my writing against those, decided which ones needed changed, inverted and rearranged what I could, and came up with plausible reasons to keep the rest. There was no point to developing a totally unique inn and tavern setup, for example, or a different kind of beer, wine, or tea. Those are backdrop items that really don’t need a whole lot of tweaking to work, and if I messed with that basic trope, I risked distracting the reader from the action. I tried to keep stuff like that as simple as possible without being overly tropistic (is that a word? If not, it is now), and focused more on the strange creatures like firetail birds, gerhoi, desert lords, ha’ra’hain, and ha’reye, along with the cultures and characters, to make the world stand out.
In the fourth book especially, I had fun doing research on ceremonies and musical instruments; while the northlands are still patterned largely along standard Euro-medieval lines in many ways, the southlands is an absolute riot of cultures and a mishmash of time periods, none of which was randomly chosen. The Aerthraim, for instance, are quite austere and are inclined toward simplifying ceremonies, if not outright avoiding them altogether; on the other hand, Sessin Family is fond of creating absurdly ostentatious ceremonies in order to look wealthier and stronger than everyone else.
Once I started figuring out broad categories like that, and developing the answers to questions such as what, exactly, Aerthraim Family considers to be excessive ornamentation and what Sessin considers to be too little, a cascade of increasingly fine tuned details started snapping into place, and critters like the firetail bird and outfits like the one Azni wears to the Scratha Conclave just sort of appeared on the page as I wrote. I rarely had to stop and consider what someone would wear or what the nearby flora and fauna looked like.
I will note that I’ve had to pull or sharply condense all sorts of geeky-cool details from the final text, even stuff I desperately wanted to keep (like a detailed description of the Scratha Conclave room), because as my publisher ever so gently pointed out, it really just got in the way. And I had to remove Teilo and Lord Evkit’s POV altogether from this series, which really hurt; Evkit is such a bloody fun character (well, to write about, at least. Not to deal with, certainly). And Teilo has a…well, a unique perspective on matters. One day, perhaps, I’ll get the chance to present “extended cuts” of various scenes, and the two POV lines that were entirely removed from Guardians and Bells. But not today. Not just yet…
I did have to stop, as noted above, and do some research for the sake of creating two powerful ceremonies in the fourth book. I leaned on accounts of an ancient Japanese processional for the one, I’ll give you that hint, and the other…well, listen to some of Coyote Run’s music and you’ll probably see where I drew at least the musical inspiration for that one from. I like to think that Cat and Dave are in the shadows at that ceremony, gleefully whacking on those gigantic teyanain drums…*ahem* but I mustn’t spoil it, now! Book four won’t be out until April, at RavenCon of Richmond. Except for our beloved book reviewers, who will get to devour the ARCs of books three and four rather sooner than January and April, respectively. (Yes, yes, Colleen, we have you on the list, I absolutely won’t forget you, don’t worry!) 🙂
Ah, but I still haven’t answered the question of “what made you choose a desert setting?” Unfortunately, I still don’t really have a proper answer. When I started writing the book that became Secrets of the Sands (it was originally called Walking the Kingdom), I had no notion that it would eventually see real publication, so I didn’t record stuff like that. (To be honest, I still don’t.)
The best I can do is to say that I had, truly, no notion past a few scattered notes about the origins of humanity to work with when Idisio first strolled onto the page. When Scratha grabbed him, and I started asking why Scratha was so ominious, the term “desert lord” just showed up on the page, willy-nilly. So I had to develop a desert culture that would have feasibly produced someone as catastropically bad-tempered as Scratha. Then I had to figure out why Alyea would go south with so little knowledge as to what she was facing; developing the immense suspicion between north and south kicked off a whole new set of details and questions.
I suppose at some point it began to seem like something of a shame not to use all this amazingly cool information I was putting together. So Scratha threw in the towel and went south, dragging Idisio and Riss along.
Events took on their own direction and momentum from there. I had to run fast enough to keep up with the weird stuff I was writing, and provide rational or at least plausible reasons for it to be happening. By Bells of the Kingdom, the world was fairly well established and had been accepted by fans, and writing about the setting was very nearly intuitive.
So the best answer I can offer is this: I didn’t choose the desert setting. It chose me. And I can only hope I’ve done that incredibly complex world justice with my words, and that one day I can show my readers a more complete view of the stuff happening in areas that Alyea and Idisio, and even Cafad Scratha, never get to visit.
There’s this expatriate master thief named Lamb, for starters, who may well show up in the fifth book…and then there’s the story about Azni’s twin brother, Allonin…and there’s all the side story about Lord Evkit, and how he came to power…and what happens at the Night Market in Water’s End… and, and… well, there will be time for all that. I promise. Right now, it’s time for me to draw the curtain once more and leave the stage, so that the cleaning crew can tidy up before the next blogger comes on. Please do leave questions and comments in the box by the door as you leave…and I’ll be back in a few days with another post about the series, characters, plot, setting, or whatever else you indicate that you’d like to hear about.