I have a confession to make. For a wannabe author, I’ve always been rather guarded about my stories. As a teacher I make no secret about the fact that of my various hobbies I love writing best of all, above drawing, above being out and about in nature – and, yes, even above music. Why? Because writing is one of the few things in the world that you can truly call your own. You can’t compare your voice to somebody else’s any more than you can compare your ability to think. But, for all the show of carrying a journal around and self-consciously dropping into conversation now and then that I write for pleasure, I don’t really talk overmuch about my books.
There’s a couple of reasons for that. The first one is simple self-defence, the fear that somebody could steal your ideas and tell your own stories as though they were their own. Laugh if you will at that idea – what story hasn’t been told and retold a thousand times over since the dawn of time? – but an incident involving my artwork, DeviantArt and an alarming case of identity theft back in my schooldays has left me cautious about putting my work out there. In that case, I was lucky that the thief had been indiscriminate in their robbery: though some of the drawings they claimed as their own were odds and sods from the novel, more than a few were portraits of friends from school, so it wasn’t just my intellectual property on the line. Together with some friends, we kicked up a fuss and had the thief’s account taken down. To their credit, DeviantArt were pretty quick. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know who the culprit was, though reason tells me it could only have been somebody I knew. I learned a valuable lesson, though: art is easy to steal.
The second reason is the simplest one: there’s just too much to say in one sitting. I can see that on those occasions when somebody leafs through one of my journals. There’s so much going on in there and none of it in any particular order, and without a map, you’d never know where to start. Entering into a writer’s world is probably a rather daunting experience, like arriving at a house party and finding you don’t know any of the guests. You could try. You could sum up the Lord of the Rings saga by saying it’s all about a quest to destroy a magical ring, but that leaves out the silent terror of the Mines of Moria, the treachery of Gollum and the mournful autumnal kingdom of the elves; the details that make the world come to life. Story-telling is a necessarily one-sided pastime, and since my day job places such an emphasis on listening, my favourite hobby is something I try to avoid at all costs, because it feels selfishly out of sync.
Today, I’m going to break a habit. I’m going to let you into my world.
We can start where it all began. Where it all began to take shape, I mean. According to my journal, that was at 15.30 on Friday 13th November, 2015, on a rocky outcrop beside the Santuario de Nuestra Señora de la Montaña just outside the city of Cáceres. I’d been writing “the book” for about twelve years by then – I can trace the first draft back to 2003 – but it was here in Extremadura that everything suddenly fell into place. As I looked out across the plains of Cáceres and upon the city thrown into shadow by the setting sun, something magical happened. It was as though I was staring at a giant jigsaw puzzle that was suddenly arranging itself into perfect order before my eyes. I wrote myself a note in my journal – “What might this place have looked like in the 1600s?”. Sometime later I pencilled in two words above that line: “it begins!”.
And so it began. The cast of characters I had carried in my head and in my heart for over a decade moved to Spain, and the kingdom of Meridia was born.
Picture a corner of the world where the fields go on forever. A land of immense blue skies and sparsely-populated hill-towns, clustered like barnacles about the few slopes that rise out of the motionless sea of earth, where the merciless sun comes down with unfettered fury in summer, and in winter, chill winds howl unimpeded across the plains. A kingdom that has seen people come and go: Moorish forts atop the limestone crags that the vultures have not claimed for their own; Roman arches and theatres rising out of the earth like the bones of some long-dead giant; and, deep in the mountains that ring this hidden kingdom, the faded artwork of a people so ancient that they have long since faded into oblivion. And such mountains! Look to the north on a clear day and you can see them towering mightily over the fields, vast and blue like the sky above, their peaks scarred with snow well into the spring. That’s where the old forests cling on, fugitives from the axes that carved the Roman Empire from Spanish lumber many centuries ago. And where the forests give way to the water, powerful rivers bubble up from the deep, thundering through the hills and carving sheer ravines through the finger-like ridges that splay across the plains from the Sistema Central.
The best of it is that I don’t have to invent this world at all, because it actually exists, and her name is Extremadura. All I had to do was to imagine her in somebody else’s hands. My hands.
When I first set out to create Meridia – named, of course, for the city of Mérida – I initially wanted to keep the real-world location a secret, until the close of the story, at least. It didn’t take me long to realise just how impossible that was going to be from a worldbuilding perspective, particularly over a saga spanning seven books, but since “big reveals” are and always have been a majorly appealing part of story-telling, I played along for a time. I was also still reluctant to fully transition to the use of Spanish people and place names, so I had a go at creating names of my own.
Casiers. Barosse. Meroon. Looking back now, I’m cringing already at how disgustingly English they sound. But then, few tales come into being in a matter of moments. Worldbuilding takes a long time, longer by far than it takes to tell the story itself. I can only guess at how many hours Tolkien must have poured into the creation of Arda. It’s taken me all of twenty years.
Here’s the same map, drawn about a year later. It’s the eighth of a total of ten maps of the peninsula in the same journal (when students ask me how I can draw a map of Spain from memory… this. This is how). It’s probably the most accurate, and the one I still use today when mapping out the events of the saga, the exception being the retroactive introduction of the “corredor cordobés” that cuts a swathe from Córdoba to the city of Cádiz, separating Meridia from Granada and providing a political flashpoint for the plot. Ringing the map, you can see the history I’ve had to build up around it. I tell you, writing a historical novel is one thing, but writing allohistory – that is, an alternative timeline – is a messy, time-consuming business. If I didn’t keep a journal, I doubt I’d remember all the details. Nevertheless, they’re absolutely essential to giving your world an identity of its own, just as the “Greatest Generation” and the “fight them on the beaches” speech are integral parts of our collective memory.
Creating five hundred years of history for a kingdom which never existed is quite the task. Beginning it is easy, as is the wrapping it all up at the end. It’s what you do in between that’s the trouble. How do you explain away, for example, the men who changed the world who hailed from that corner of the real world? How do you rewrite an essentially Spanish history in a timeline where Granada did not fall until the middle of the seventeenth century, where Seville was in foreign hands for the greater part of the Age of Discoveries, and – perhaps most importantly of all – where almost all of Spain’s conquistadors from Cortés and Pizarro to Francisco de Orellana and Núñez de Balboa hailed from a land that did not carry the flag of Castile?
To be honest, that’s half of the fun, trying to find radically new ways of retelling history. It’s why I wrote my dissertation on the Cronica sarracina, arguably one of the greatest works of fiction ever sold as fact in Spain (or was it fact sold as fiction?). I’m doing the same thing with Meridia: I’m telling the story of Spain through a glass darkly, holding up a devil’s mirror to the country I know best.
And once the world has taken shape in your head, it’s time to set your characters running across its empty plains, so your voice can follow them, painting their footprints with words.
I take my inspiration from the world around me. From books, mostly, but also from photographs, legends, paintings and even conversations with strangers. More than one character has slipped between the pages of the book over the years after a brief encounter with one of those larger-than-life types. In essence, the saga is my paean to my grandfather’s country, so I try to weave as many details in as I can. The madmen of the Hurdes. The seven chairs of Mérida. Goya’s fight with cudgels. The mystery of who really got to the New World first and the Lisbon Earthquake. The odd real person makes a cameo appearance from time to time: Diego Velázquez, Michiel de Ruyter and the lost children of the sack of Baltimore. I get the same satisfaction threading their tales into the narrative as I did from peppering each and every essay I wrote at university with “ursulas” (unnecessarily farfetched sidetracks that somehow relate back to the essay question, named for the sea witch in The Little Mermaid). When you’ve been writing the same story for twenty years, you’ve got to find new ways to keep the game fresh.
And sometimes, it’s not a book or a person that finds its way into the worldbuilding effort, but the real world itself, in real time. Like this little snippet from the journal. I’ll leave you with the date (24/6/2016) and let you guess what it’s referring to.
Worldbuilding is laborious. It takes a bloody long time if you plan to do it right. It took me a matter of seconds to decide to move the fictional kingdom of my childhood into Extremadura, but it’s taken my characters all of five years to finish unpacking. The central characters of the story have only borne their new Spanish names for a little over a year. But it’s easily one of the most entertaining parts of the story-telling business, and it doesn’t half smooth out the writing process when you finally find the time to sit down at the computer and have a solid crack at the next chapter.
So… what would you like to know? Asking for somebody else’s thoughts on what is nothing more or less than the single most precious creation of one’s life is more than a little unnerving – I’m not afraid to admit I got the shivers writing that question – but the purpose of story-telling is to share, and I could do with airing the world inside my head for a change.
Alternatively, if you’re a writer too, does my experience with the worldbuilding process sound familiar? I’d love to hear your thoughts. BB x