Friday, May 9, 2008

Building The Dragon Lord's world

by Olivia Knight

The Dragon Lord is the final novella in Magic and Desire:

From the misty marshlands of Navarone to the halls of mythical Kâo, Drake's passion for the newly-wed Princess Nina threatens to end his quest, his honour, and his life. Meanwhile, Nina must wrestle with her dangerous secret, which marriage should have ended and which Drake has reignited.

Misty marshlands of Navarone... mythical Kâo... Fantasy creates worlds. Rich, enthralling, complex, patently untrue and wholly believable worlds with distinct cultures, customs, countries, and histories. If you want readers to walk around Hogwarts after dark in their heads, or hike across Middle Earth on the way to work, or even believe this place exists and the food chain is more than grass–hare–hero, you need convincing detail, and plenty of it. Fantasy gobbles up word count. But erotica gobbles up word count, too – all those times you thought you’d been gone ten minutes, and reappear at the party, slightly flushed, an hour and a half later? It’s the same in writing. It always takes longer than you expect.

An erotic fantasy story, then, in a third of the length of a novel (roughly an eighteenth of most fantasy sagas), demands damn tight world-building. No reader wants great chunky paragraphs of back history, nor do they want to spend the whole story scrambling frantically to figure out what the hell is going on and what, for god’s sake, is a wurzel? So here follows the art of building a world on a postage-stamp…

Nursery rhymes
These are history in a nutshell. Think of ‘ring-a-ring-a-rosies’ and the Black Plague. ‘Eeny-meeny-miny-mo’ is a counting system from before the Celts landed in Britain. Children keep chanting long after the origins are forgotten, especially if there’s a fun dance involved… At Princess Nina’s engagement dinner, she insists – to the humiliated horror of her parents – that the musican play the Song of Kâo:

Karitta go karew karew
In the land of Kâo, the words were true.
The Lords and ladies flew by night
In the land of Kâo, the moon was bright.

Karitta go karew karack
In the land of Kâo, the moon went black.
The Lords and ladies fell today
And all the people ran away.

As true as ring-a-ring-a-rosies, this is all that’s left of the legends of Kâo – and a slightly chilling verdict on what’s to come.

Beginning an erotic story with the heroine’s engagement and wedding is bizarre, but very handy. Ceremonies are culture at its most ossified – sorry, traditional – and we quickly know what to expect of the way of life: Nina wears full face-covering veils for twelve days before her marriage, the congregation mumble on auto-pilot “For God has said so,” and the morning after the wedding…

… as was customary, the bloodied sheet was flown like a flag from their bedroom window and the locals hooted and applauded. The guests belatedly joined in. With this proof that the prince had indeed pushed himself into the princess’s virginal flesh, the marriage was complete and they could all go home.

The wedding guests, too, prove useful. Their reactions kill two birds with one stone: a glimpse of other countries beyond this one’s borders, and an outsider’s view on what the locals take for granted. Their gifts tell us still more. (And as we’re being thrifty, make excellent props later.) Most telling, though, is their reaction to the uninvited guest, who claims to be from Kâo, and may as well have said he was from the moon…

The parties were dull. Navarone was hospitable, but its chill crept into the marrow of one’s bones. Everyone complained under their breath about the draughty rooms and heavy food, except Lord Drake. No-one knew where he was staying, and they joked that he flew back to Kâo each night, or turned into a bat and hung upside down in the rafters, or had a magical castle in the clouds. He kept himself apart, always with the same air of waiting. His remote eyes followed the princess’s tall figure as she wound through the crowds like a flame, her face hidden. When people teased him about coming from ‘Kâo’, he looked through them and smiled distantly. After a few days their inventiveness failed, the novelty wore off, and they left him alone. He didn’t seem to notice.

Proverbs and sayings
History and attitude wrapped up in one neat phrase, they’re the smoke to the culture’s fire. Here, Lord Drake has escaped another of the endless parties – a masked ball – to a quiet room where he stares out over the marshes and the green flames that erupt. Another guest has also escaped, her shoes poking out from under the curtains, and laughing he invites her out. They’re discussing honesty versus social niceties when…

He lifted her hand to the spiky letters engraved on his breastplate. She traced the metal grooves.
‘What does that say?’
Karayeethra ga Karayu – Honesty and Honour, in your language. It’s the motto of Kâo.’
‘Are you really from Kâo, then?’
He sighed. ‘Yes. Though I realise that everyone here has difficulty believing me.’
‘I believe you,’ she said quickly. ‘At least – I believe that you believe it.’
‘And perhaps that’s the best I can hope for.’
‘I love that song. It’s always been my favourite.’
His eyes turned sadly out to the windows, but his hand held hers tighter. His quest might be a failure, but the party was brighter for containing this girl.
‘And now I’m holding hands with a man from a story,’ she mused.
His fingers released hers abruptly. ‘I’m not from a story,’ he growled. ‘I’m real.’
She stared. ‘You said honesty. I’m only being honest, that’s truly what I believe.’
He smiled thinly. ‘“What the heart believes to be true is never untruthful” – that’s a saying of ours. But there’s always the polite option of silence. You could do me the courtesy of not saying you think I’m made up.’
‘But even silence misleads – not telling a truth can help someone believe a lie...’
He laughed, delighted. ‘You’re passionate about truth. In Kâo, that’s important. And of course, you’re right, it’s a delicate line to tread.’
Whether the silence lied or not, they let it settle over them, except for murmuring ‘Look’ or ‘Over there’ as the pale lights flared and vanished. Like another quiet language, her drooping sleeve brushed his wrist, his upper arm returned from a gesture to lie closer to hers. Both seemed not to notice the furtive touches; both were hypersensitive to every hair-tip’s contact. His fingertips ran across the inside of her wrist, breaking the pretence. Neither breathed as he traced lightly. They kept their eyes averted, hypnotised by his invisible drawing. His hand slipped higher, under her loose sleeve. In feathery increments, his fingertips crept to the crease of her arm and when they found it she moaned.
‘Look at me,’ he murmured.
Her dilated green eyes lifted. His were dark grey, searching. He glanced at her lips, back up, then at the swell of her breasts. He knew she could see where he was looking, and she knew that was deliberate. Under his eyes’ caress, her lips parted, her breasts got goosebumps. Her breath came faster and made her cleavage rise and fall. Her eyes flickered to his lips and shyly away.
‘No,’ he said. ‘Be honest.’
So she studied them, thinking about kissing them, and with the thought clear on her face met his eyes again. He put a hand on her waist and guided her closer. Their lips touched and their bodies brushed. His groin swelled as their tongues twisted wetly.
‘Now am I made up?’ he asked.
She shuddered in his arms. ‘I don’t think so.’
The heat from her skin came like waves and he closed his eyes, the lust rolling. He burned for her and a terrible thought occurred to him: it could be her, that could be why, and if so, he was compromising his honour… She nudged her hips from side to side until his bulge rested in white-hot longing at the apex of her thighs. His mind was drowned out by sensation, and he thrust the thought aside. She was lovely, sexy, and sliding against him; that was enough to explain the roaring lust.
His hand clutched the hem of her bodice, his fingers against the bare slope of her breast beneath. They lapped each other’s tongues and she whimpered as his nail caught her nipple. Their hips rubbed harder, trying to complete what their clothes made impossible, and with one hand each they tugged her skirt upwards.
The door creaked. The girl sprang away, twirling to the window.
‘Look at that flare!’ she exclaimed. Facing away from the door, she rubbed the back of her hand over her mouth, wiping away the smeared blue lipstick. Surprised, Drake surreptitiously copied her example.
‘Princess Nina,’ said a servant. ‘Your parents and the Consort have been looking for you – it’s time for the speeches.’
Only the marshes saw the horror that crossed Drake’s face.

These are my personal shortcut, rather than a writing technique: I scour the web for pictures of imaginary worlds that I can make leap to life. I might reference a single detail or describe it in detail, but they live in my head while I write. All the pictures in the post are part of The Dragon Lord's world, and come from either furiae or mattepainting.

And if you want a glimpse of Kâo itself, the prologue is on my website. For a chance to win Magic and Desire, tell me your favourite fantasy world… The whole week's winners will be announced on Sunday.


Janine Ashbless said...

I really enjoyed The Dragon Lord, Olivia! You have a great original take on dragon psychology. And that threesome with the guards ... OMG.

Erastes said...

I really like the way you talk about world building, and I'm taking notes! Great post!

Portia Da Costa said...

Your world building is a stunning achievement... unbelievably complex, yet precisely tailored to the limitations of the word count. Dazzling stuff.

I'm more of the 'grass–hare–hero' school of world building myself. ;)

The very least I can get away with... LOL

Janine Ashbless said...

BTW your ideas about nursery rhymes and old saws are excellent and I shall be stealing them.

Jade Taylor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Oh, world building. I just love it. I feel I have been building worlds all my life.

And I am always up for a sit around and discuss 'so, what *is* Angel's soul anyway?' 'Is Caprica like a really small planet then? Does it only have one city on it?' 'So is Hogwarts, like, the *only* school for wizard children? How many pupils are there?'

With werewolves I had three books and I used the same basic world in my novellas and shorts, but I love the drip-drip expansion of the universes.

...Werewolves have super-short lives..., Vampires are really rich..., Witches are as powerful as god... it.

And this collection still sounds awesomey

Jade Taylor said...

I'm with Portia, your world building is very impressive - and slightly intimidating to someone who mainly likes to wing it!
As for fave fantasy words, I was thinking books (I was showing my nerdy side and thinking Terry Pratchet's Discworld novels, who has built worlds that remain consistently impressive) until Mathilde mentioned Angel.
Now all thought of books (and pretty much everything else) are forgotten.
Oh the joy of Angel......
Is anyone else enjoying Moonlight (even if it is a poor successor)?

Jeremy Edwards said...

Reading your account of the challenge regarding length (ahem) and the exploitation of shortcuts, I can appreciate how ingeniously economical you've been. Very impressive!

Meanwhile, of course, here I am(virtually speaking) with my hand on a skirt and my attention riveted to the "white-hot longing at the apex of her thighs." I'll probably be here all day.

Megan Kerr said...

Thanks for the lovely compliments, everyone! Janine - you can steal the ideas if I get ancient Egypt :-) Madeline & Jade, I'm glad other people live part time on Caprica / the Discworld / etc... Yep, apparently Caprica has just the one city, although don't forget the fleet was quite small by then anyway (Battlestar Galactica, for the mystified & uninitiated), but that always bothered me too. It was the only part that didn't feel fully-realised. Oh, and Hogwarts is the only British school for wizards & witches, but other countries have their own. I'd guess about 600 pupils, judging from the class sizes.

I remember watching Chicken Run once with a few housemates. The chickens had planned their escape from the coop and were now launching off in their plane, then one of the housemates cried out in annoyance, "But it doesn't have any fuel!" We'd just watched CHICKENS with opposable thumbs & clothes build their own airplane from things handily available in the coop and farm, but it was only the lack of fuel that troubled him. Ah, the rules of internal logic...

Madeline Moore said...

Woah, O! Great stuff! As always you are generous with your insider information, too. Terrific post.

My favourite fantasy world would still be Narnia, probably because I read the Chronicles when I was young and believed...I longed to go to Narnia with all my little skinny body and heart and soul. I read the entire series over and over, never getting the Christ connection, else I'd likely be a nun by now.

But I went in another direction...though I do believe sex can be transportive and a portal to true bliss. But only if you read my books.

Janine Ashbless said...

Ah - Narnia. Despite loathing Aslan now I'm all grown up and not a Christian anymore, I still get this extraordinary feeling of "coming home" when I see clips of the Narnia films. I think I lived there as a child.

Janine Ashbless said...


Chickens = chicken shit = methane = combustable fuel. Maybe...

Unknown said...

I thought it was a glider?

I loved this post and I'm totally impressed by your meticulous world building. I have to admit, I'm incredibly lazy when I write my futuristics. I had to go back and re-read Planet Mail when I was writing the next book because I, um, hadn't kept any notes about my world-bad writer-I know...

this anthology sounds so good-I can't wait to read it.

Madelynne Ellis said...

Wow, talk about world building! Like Erastes, I'm taking notes.

Have you and Janine decided on who gets ancient Egypt yet? I'd like to put a bid in for modern Egypt, just in case I ever write another novel set there.

Madeline Moore said...

Iwouldn't even see 'Cows' or whatever it was called because the cows had male voices...aren't male cows called bulls? Grumble...

limecello said...

Hm my favorite fantasy world? I don't have one! I love pretty much any type and time. :) I loved the excerpt!

Janine Ashbless said...

You can have ancient Egypt Olivia - My next novel is going to be set in medieval Baghdad.

Lil said...

I don't have a favorite fantasy world though I enjoy fantasy stories.

t'Sade said...

Now, that is a very hot little scene there. Yummy!

As for worlds, I have to say two of them. One is my own world, Nine Sisters, which I love building almost as much as I love writing in it. There are so many wonderful things with world building, from culture to areas. And I keep doing it, three of my novels are all set in that world as is over half of my short stories.

Beyond the ego-tripping of my world, I like the Earthsea world. There is something about the gritty nature of that world that really makes people shine in it.