Worldbuilding for a fantasy series.
My just-released novel, “Assassin Queen”, the concluding book 3 of the “Majat Code” series, is a historical adventure fantasy featuring political intrigue, swordplay, and elements of romance. I had lots of fun creating these series. Much of this creative work went into worldbuilding, which seemed so natural at the time, but also ended up being fairly systematic. Today, I wanted to share the key steps of this process, which has become both my enjoyment and my routine and taught me so much building new fantasy worlds.
I planned out the “Majat Code” world as the blend of East and West, which reflects my own origin from Russia, a true melting pot for eastern and western cultures. The setting in the “Majat Code” resembles medieval Europe, but with a lot of Asian elements – such as the ninja-like fighting style of the Majat warriors. This concept became my starting point, on which I built the rest.
After writing a few opening scenes I quickly realized that I wouldn’t be able to get any further without a map. So I put the writing aside and took out a pen and paper to scribble some sketches–not because I am any good at drawing, but because everything needed to be spacially positioned and named in order to work. And yes, I did take out my battered copy of “The Lord of the Rings” as a reference, to see what good maps should look like. Mine was never like this, not even close, until a good map artist worked with it a lot pre-publication.
After a few tries, my scribbled map ended up being fairly detailed – both for the entire world I wanted to describe, and for the enlarged region where the main action was going to take place. I spent quite a bit of time on laying out mountains, rivers, forests, grasslands, and deserts, as well as the countries, major cities and towns that would feature in the book. This was important not only from the action standpoint, but also for the dialogue. Until then, I did not think much of how the names of places we know and their positions in relation to our current location factor into our everyday speech. Without knowing all these details no dialogue could ever seem authentic, or consistent enough to carry the situation all through the book.
I also realized very early on that if my world is sufficiently multicultural (which I wanted), names of the locations on the map have to be heavily influenced by local languages and cultures in these different regions. While the main language in my book is common (and is impersonally referred to as “common speech”), people also have their native dialects that influence the way they speak and can become noticeable to others. In the desert lands of Shayil Yara, people soften their consonants, so that “t” sounds more like “sh”. In the Forestlands, people have a special “forward l”, spoken by placing the tongue against the teeth, rather than tilting it backwards. This gives each word a different flavor, noticeable to others. In the Majat Fortress, the native dialect sounds as if composed almost entirely from hard consonants, making it seemingly unpronounceable and impossible for the outsiders to understand. All these details are modeled on some real languages I know, or am familiar with, and while they are barely shown in the book, they do add a patina of authenticity to the world.
Drawing the map influenced not only the speech, but some of the action in the books. For example, in “Blades of the Old Empire”, two sets of characters are traveling at full speed and must arrive in the same place at the same time. I had to measure every distance out with a ruler and lay out roads and paths that would enable them to do so. In “Assassin Queen” the traveling party is considering alternative routes to get to a place they need, and the layout of my land, pretty much set by that time, defined these choices and the mode of transportation to go with them. In some cases, the characters surprised me –e.g., by taking a boat where I expected them to travel on horseback, and this surprise actually created a nice twist in the story.
Some other elements layered naturally on top, lending even more authenticity to the book. For example, religion and folk beliefs became really fun to play with – not only because some colorful characters tend to swear in the name of their special deity, or curse by the devil of their religion, but also because these beliefs are so colorful in themselves. One of my favorite characters in the book, a subject of folk believes and superstitions, wears a dress made of live spiders. I had some creative time figuring out how this would work, and some really stimulating discussions with my beta readers on this topic.
As I wrote, new layers of details added on naturally. In the mountain areas around the Majat Fortress, a beautiful mountain flower, wild aemrock, is very abundant and its subtle fragrance is referred to as one of the most pleasant smells. People use a plant called goat mint as a stimulant, wartbane as poison, milk of thorn as an insect repellent – and occasionally as a smelling salt, and trollop nettle as a disinfectant. All these create some fun details to hold on to.
Of course, no world would be complete without food. Each region has its favorite. The southern land of Shayil Yara is famous for its spices and has about a hundred different lamb recipes. The Cha’ori nomads flavor their food with sweet and sour aro apples. In the trade city of Jaimir a local favorite is spiny galleon – a fish that looks a bit like a bass and is cooked with a head on, which some view as a delicacy and others find repulsive. Bengaw is famous for flatbreads, and Forestland villagers they flavor their soups and stews with freshly picked pine tips.
After all this work, it was even more surprising for me to see how little of what I know about my world actually ended up on the pages of the books. Yes, every once in a while people do mention an exotic dish or swear by their local deity. But most of the time they talk like regular people, without overburdening their speech with foreign details. By now I can probably write a separate book about the history and customs of the “Majat Code” world. But to the outsiders these book will hopefully remain entertaining and fast-paced reads, where the worldbuilding details do only one job: immerse the reader into a different world, no less dimensional than our own.
Anna Kashina grew up in Russia and moved to the United States in 1994 after receiving her Ph.D. in cell biology from the Russian Academy of Sciences. She works as a biomedical researcher and combines career in science with her passion for writing. Anna’s interests in ballroom dancing, world mythologies and folklore feed her high-level interest in martial arts of the Majat warriors. She lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Find out more about Anna Kashina and her books:
Assassin Queen (Majat Code, #3) by Anna Kashina
Published by Angry Robot on June 7th 2016
Defeated by the Majat forces, Nimos and the other Kaddim Brothers retreat to their secret fortress in the southern mountains. Nimos knows that the Majat s victory is only temporary: during the flight, he managed to place a mark on Kara, one of the top-ranked Diamond Majat. His mind magic would now allow him to use this mark to confer her fighting skill to the Kaddim warriors and turn her loyalties to their side. The new Majat Guildmaster, Mai, is planning a march against the Kaddim. His key ally, Prince Kyth Dorn, is instrumental in these plans: Kyth s magic gift can protect the Majat against the Kaddim mind control powers. But Mai and Kyth are having trouble getting over their rivalry for Kara's affections--even after they realize that this rivalry is the least of their worries, at least for the moment. Something about Kara is not right... File Under: Fantasy"