Tuesday, May 01, 2012

World-Building: It's Never Just One Thing

In my last post I promised I'd write about my Golden Heart® finalist manuscript: THE LAZARUS GAMBIT. TLG is a finalist in the Novel with Strong Romantic Elements category, which, frankly, doesn't tell you anything at all about the story or genre, except that the romance portion is a (major) sub-plot.

In this post I'm going to start with the foundation of the book: genre and world-building. I promise to get to the actual, you know, story in my next post. THE LAZARUS GAMBIT is a STEAMPUNK novel set in New Amsterdam, an alternate version of Manhattan. Before I wrote a single sentence of the story, I spent a great deal of time world-building (though hopefully most of that world-building lurks below the surface in the book). My goal was to create a world which was "similar but different" from our own.

While I love the late Victorian/Edwardian era, I wanted the freedom to make the differences in my world from that era pronounced. I was struck by something I read on Wikipedia while researching Queen Victoria (about her suitors): "William IV, however, disapproved of any match with the Coburgs, and instead favoured the suit of Prince Alexander of the Netherlands, second son of the Prince of Orange." It turns out Victoria made the better choice; Prince Alexander died at the age of 29.

Just like that, I had my hook for the differences I wanted to make in my world. I went all the way back to William and Mary (1600s) and created new royal alliances and genealogical charts, removing the Hanoverian Georges from the line of British kings and creating a succession which culminated in Alexander, Prince of Orange-Nassau (of the Netherlands) becoming King Alexander I of Great Britain. And, Alexander I marries...Victoria of Hanover (in my world, Alexander dies at 52). I still get my Queen Victoria, but in my world, she's queen through marriage and her role, while important, is diminished.

Of course, once you make such a major change, it's like starting off knocking down a long line of dominoes. The face of Europe--scratch that--the entire world changed, as well. Different rulers, different alliances, different decisions. I ended up having to create an historical timeline of events, just to keep track of everything.

There's one event that plays a major role in the history of this world, and which forms the underpinnings of the plot of THE LAZARUS GAMBIT. In the 1700s, this Earth has a close encounter with a mysterious comet, which changes the Earth forever. At one point I wrote a prologue to TLG explaining the Comet. I ultimately discarded the prologue, but here's an excerpt from it, to give you an idea of the Comet's importance:

The comet appeared as a tiny speck of light among the northern stars. Over the course of months it grew bigger and brighter until it dominated the night, a cold fireball with a glowing tail stretching halfway across the sky. The superstitious called it a harbinger of doom and believed the end of the world was nigh. The rational-minded saw it for the rare astronomical event it was and marveled at its unearthly beauty. Scientists worked feverishly to accurately predict its path and privately wondered if the superstitious might not be right after all.

For six months the earth traveled through the comet’s tail. The sky blazed with an aurora from exotic gases streaming into the atmosphere, and cometary debris flamed across the sky in a nightly spectacle. At first only the occasional larger bit of rock survived the journey through the atmosphere, but over time the meteorites increased in size and frequency, often impacting with devastating results. The worst event occurred in mid-October in the early morning hours when hundreds of meteorites bombarded the northern hemisphere, leaving more than just death and destruction in their wake.

The meteorites contained Carolinium, a previously undiscovered element named in honor of Caroline Herschel, the astronomer who first discovered the comet. Carolinium combined with the aurora gases in a volatile reaction that charged particles lying dormant in the earth, creating a new substance. While scientists raced to investigate these new phenomena, the more romantic thinkers of the day named the new substance Aether. And since the charged particles tended to collect in narrow bands that criss-crossed the globe, they were dubbed Ley Lines. To the chagrin of the scientific community, those terms stuck.

Many believed aether had a dual nature: one part science and one part magic. Bizarre comet cults sprang up overnight around charismatic charlatans, attracting thousands of followers despite fierce condemnation from world and religious leaders. For weeks rioting by panic stricken citizens, inflamed by end-of-the-world rhetoric, swept through the capitals of the world. Only the inevitable and inexorable retreat of the comet allowed the world’s governments to promote calm and restore order and stability.

The vast majority of the Carolinium vaporized in the reaction that charged the ley lines and created aether. Approximately seven percent was out of reach, lost somewhere in the great plains of North America behind an impenetrable barrier, dubbed the Great Aetheric Curtain. The Curtain appeared without warning on the night of the first winter solstice after the meteorites fell, cutting off the middle of the continent from further European encroachment. The remainder of the Carolinium was scattered across the northern hemisphere.

This rare element was said to have amazing properties that scientists couldn’t measure in their laboratories or test tubes. Carolinium, true believers whispered, was beyond the ken of science; it belonged to those individuals who possessed an innate affinity for aether. For those few, Carolinium enhanced the ability to manipulate aether, making even the smallest of talents great. And the person who could control and manipulate aether, could control the world.

So, that's a tiny look behind the world-building curtain of THE LAZARUS GAMBIT. I tried to create a world which was rich in its own history, but familiar and recognizable at the same time. In addition, I wanted a world which I could possibly re-visit in a sequel (or prequel). I guess time will tell if I was successful!

Twitter: @DeborahBWright


Genene Valleau, writing as Genie Gabriel said...

Fascinating! It would make my head hurt to do all that research, then create an alternate world where the rules were different than our current world.

I want to read this book! So fingers crossed it sells soon!

Deborah Wright said...

Thanks Genene! I love the world-building and the research. On the other hand, I'm amazed at how you keep everything straight for your series!

Different strokes, I guess. :-)

Meggan McQuaid said...

I'm a big fan of sci-fi and fantasy, and while I have only read a few steampunk novels, it was in part because I didn't understand the whole "aether/ether" thing. I love that you created this explanation for it. It's wonderful! I do also understand that you just can't put every bit of the world you create into the actual pages of the book...but you do have to know them and share enough of them to keep your readers in the know. I got a tweet recently that you might find funny; I can't find it now, but it said something like...don't use book one of a trilogy just to explain the world you've built...put some story in there too!

I believe you WILL sell soon!