Worldbuilding: Atridia

© Elsa Sjunneson-Henry (aka @Snarkbat)
© Elsa Sjunneson-Henry (aka @Snarkbat)

For me worldbuilding is the most fun and best bit about writing (it’s also my Achilles’ heel, my one weakness). Of course, Atridia has been around a while (it even gets destroyed in my short story “The Breaking of the Circle”, albeit briefly) and it, or rather some of its inhabitants (Amel, Kella and others) had a role to play in The Parting of the Waters. Writing that told me several things about Atridia and its culture for later use:

  • They are beginning to explore the universe, the Juran Elaspe being a prototype ship and the first one to leave the Sirian solar system.
  • Taborin is the centre of Atridian culture but it’s not a democracy. The best comparison would be North Korea.
  • Same-sex relationships are taboo and Amel, in particular, has a really big issue with his daughter, Kella, being gay (oddly falling for an alien doesn’t seem to bother him at all).
  • Homosexuality is a mental illness on Atridia, treated with crude attempts at conversion therapy and, if the subject isn’t cured to the satisfaction of the auditors, they can be euthanised. It’s also believed to be communicable, like an idea, but also genetic and travels in families.
  • There is a translation matrix (the beginnings of what will eventually become the Union’s neural rig) but it’s hit and miss.
  • The Atridians are a curious people, looking for others in the sea of space but they also want to be important and powerful.
  • Science is their religion, administered by the Directorate. It strictly controls information, censoring anything deemed inappropriate.
  • There are three genders, with the Ubani, or progenitors, vital to the continuation of the species but segregated and strictly controled by the Directorate. No one remembers why, at least not regular folks like Kella.
  • Creativity is viewed with suspicion and strictly controlled.
  • The neighbouring planet, Arcadia, is simultaneously Occupied and also independant and known for its medical advances/export of doctors.

So I started expanding on things. I wanted to know who Juran Elaspe was and why Amel was so upset by Kella’s choice to live amongst the Kashinai, unable to interbreed with them but finding family regardless. Time to worldbuild and write.

The awesome @snarkbat posted this photo of a statue in a Swedish park and the colouring of the metal/the dress immediately pinged my ‘hey, Atridians look something like that’ sensor. I had this image of a humanish race with copper-coloured skin, maybe a little lighter (Kella, for example, tailless as she is being not-Kashinai, can pass for one of them in a temple hakashari). There’s a difference in the odd organ, the number of fingers (I need to check the specifics/hire an assistant) but as photo-inspiration goes this is as close as is.

The dress just seals the deal.

I’m assembling a Pinterest board with imagery and also thinking about music. For example I’ve found two tracks which really jumped out of me (I get a lot of them via Spotify’s Discover Weekly feature, it’s actually really useful). The first I told you about when talking about expanding “When the Stars Fade” into a longer piece, probably a novella. This song makes me think of Jaada, specifically due to a lyric which talks about rewriting scenes, something she as an author is able to do—except she’s writing what amounts to historical fiction and the Narrative demands honesty, even when writing about things she’d rather change (in this case specific to her past life as Kadjat).

The second track is below:

In my head, this song perfectly sums up Jaada’s relationship with Tobai Estus, a narssasistic who slowly takes over control of Jaada’s life, attracted by her fame and her creativity but envious of it. He eventually gets his revenge after ‘suggesting’ the pair return to Atridia from the Ceipheian city of Serani where Jaada has spent her entire life so he can take up a specific post. Atridia doesn’t pride creativity and though Jaada is able to work as a teacher, it’s not the same. As she tries to reprioritise her life, he gets upset and the deterioration of their relationship ends a month later when he burns her books (a symbolic act as well as a physical desecration of her work) and then reports her to the auditors of the Hall of the Mind, which leads into my currently unsold story “The Mystic of Room 316” (which I plan on expanding into its own second person ‘chapter’ of the book).

Jaada’s incarneration then forces her to confront and learn to control her abilities, something she’s not able to do until Bry and Chaya break her out (mentioned briefly in “The First Day and the Last”, sanctioned by the highest powers due to Jaada’s ability to create unstable micro-realities). It’s in the two to three-ish years between that and the establishment of the Union/Atridian Commission to look into the Directorate that she has to learn to wield her abilities. As a teacher on Mnemosyne, she learns to inspire others but that’s only half of her ability and getting broken out of the Hall of the Mind, it wasn’t just to save her life and soul, Jaada is needed and her abilities, well they’re rare.

The true learning, that happens during The Broken World as Jaada works for the Commission. It forces her to learn about the Narrative (her name for the thread of reality that passes through linear time and allows her to tell true history from the fiction created by Atridia’s fallen government) and access historical information that no one remembers, except for the universe. This ability, it’s not oracular like the Voices of Aia on Coronis, but it’s a similar ability except governed by words rather than sight. The Divided Land (and a more formal report) is the result because, on most world, fiction is easier to believe than cold, hard facts.

By the time she publishes When the Stars Fade, Jaada’s in full command of her abilites (and will probably write more stories about other lives suppressed and whitewashed from history) but this is the one which important to her. Because it was hers. This is her way of healing, as writing “Constructed Mind, Reforged Soul” was mine.

Now to find more music, more images and write more words. Wool and Fallout are big inspirations for parts of both The Divided Land and The Broken World. Oh and everything about viruses that Seanan McGuire has ever written. On that note, it’s time to get back to the words!

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The Liner Notes: “Washed Up Upon the Shore”

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Ever since I discovered the compelling and lore-rich Bloodborne, I’ve been on a Lovecraft kick. I’m not a fan of his views or the man himself but the cosmology fascinates me, as does how other people have taken the mythology and made it their own. Case in point: I absolutely love Ruthanna Emrys’ The Litany of Earth; that’s the kind of mythos story I’ve always wanted to read and news of more Aphra Marsh books coming next year really excites me. As does The Old Hunters DLC recently released for Bloodborne (see here, here and, most importantly, here).

The only story I ever actually liked out of Lovecraft’s collective fiction was The Shadow of Innsmouth (which is also why I love The Old Hunters and the corpse of Mother Kos. Litany also focuses on what happened to the people of the town after the government bombed the sacred Old One reef and put them into camps far from the ocean). Dreams and the Old Ones go together but it was the lure of the sea which interested me. Plus I wanted to do something fantastical and secondary-worldy.

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The key for me was the idea that the sea is the gate to immortality. My protagonist is a man living in a seashore village who has an otherworldly connection to the ocean, it calls to him and he is receptive. His village has a spirituality revolving around the waters; the dead are sunk beneath with pearls beneath their lips as payment, their bodies becoming part of the ocean environment and they are also aware of a culture mirrored beneath the waves; once there was a town where there is now only underwater ruins with creatures living within.

The Faith of the Sea has the status of a minor cult but by the end of the story is a mainstream religion. Balem, my protagonist, is a priest when it is a cult and by the end of the story it’s one of the greater faiths that move over the land constituting the Twilight Empire. The Empire is minor in this story but it’s ruler the Empress Caisha is not, not is she quite as she appears and only certain people can see her with unclouded eyes and a mind able to survive the revelation.

Worshipping the sea is, as a concept, not new. It’s one of the primal forces of life, like fire and the seasons. A couple of years ago, while in Japan, I went to Teramachi (translated as ‘Temple Town’) in Kyoto and just wandered. There were a number of temples and a couple of shines but one took my interest because the kami being worshiped inside was this beautifully carved wooden octopus. I snapped an image of it because it struck me as beautiful in a weird way, octopi are about as alien as sea life can get and it sat in my brain, asking what else could live under the ocean on a world that isn’t quite Earth.

And what else drifted through the heavens.

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I quite enjoy writing secondary worlds, world building is after all my thing and I’ve always found the dark depths of the sea to be disturbing, unknown and dangerous. I also wrote this piece in second person as I wanted it to be really immersive and just a little bit creepy even though the narrator is referenced as male. My other issue is I tend to write passive characters. This is probably because I’ve spent much of my life unconsciously being like that and am now making an effort to be much more active; Balem lies to get into the entourage of the Twilight Empress and as the great monarch herself says:

“I do not punish honesty but I don’t forget liars.”

 I love that line, I think it’s my favourite of the entire story.

“Washed Up Upon the Shore” went out on submission this week, I have high hopes for it so here’s hoping it sells.

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The Liner Notes: “Infinity Girl and the Shadow”

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This actually started out from a very specific question relating to a rewatch of Sailor Moon Crystal (apologies for the anime screengrabs) and re-reading the manga in Japanese to help make my language skills not so rusty. Sailor Moon was how I learned Japanese, because I was eighteen and magical girls were cool. Plus the manga’s simple language and furigana helped, as did the size. I used to work in a kitchen and had an apron with two pockets. I’d keep the English Tokyopop translation (hahahahah!) in my left and the original Japanese edition in my right.

Yes the translation was crap but the idea basically survived and it did help (now I’ve switched to Japanese computer game streams, Dark Souls and Bloodborne, mostly). The early 2000’s were, however, a much more analogue age and there were two Japanese books stores in London that would accept my Student Loan money to feed my burgeoning addiction.

But, anyway, back to the question. Excuse the long, rambling, fangirlish and roundabout way we get to it.

Usagi (the main character) was Princess Serenity in a past life, heir to the moon kingdom known as the Silver Millennium, who fell in love with the heir to the Earth, Endymion (yes it is based on the Greek myth of moon deity, Selene, and human shepherd, Endymion). With the second arc, we’re introduced to her future self Neo-Queen Serenity, monarch of Earth who kicks arse and is awesome. I adore both princess and queen forms of Usagi’s alter-ego but NQS literally performs miracles and has all the grace, age and power Usagi lacks.

Within the mythology of the manga, Usagi gets her throne because of her past life (though this makes little logical sense as she’s reincarnated as a human, Tsukino Usagi, not a White Moon princess). As part of the storyline Usagi, Sailor Venus and Chibiusa—who has the full and surprising name of Usagi Small Lady Serenity, ChibiUsa literally meaning ‘Little Usa(gi)’—travel to the future, 3oth Century Crystal Tokyo.

There Usagi is informed that she became Queen after giving birth to ChibiUsa around the age of 22. ChibiUsa is like 904 years old and all the humans of Earth are now functionally immortal upon reaching adulthood because of a mystical crystal which serves as the series’ McGuffin/awesome-looking magical power source.

Unsurprisingly Usagi is like ‘OMG I got to have SEX with Mamoru!!!!!!!!’ (Her reincarnated, destined-to-be husband).

My question was not ‘Cool, Usagi got to be Queen’ but how. I mean like, literally.

Did she have ChibiUsa and then declare, to her civilian family (who are never mentioned outside of 20th century Tokyo) that she was now ruler of the planet? Was there a coup? Did the other senshi forcibly help her take over? Did the UN just go: ‘Sure random Tokyo woman, go nuts, the Earth is all yours’. Did she use the Silver Crystal and perform miracles/brainwashed the planet’s population? Did all the Japanese TV/newspaper coverage and the Guardians’ wins against Queen Beryl, Metalia, the Black Moon Clan, Wiseman and Black Lady, Pharaoh 90 and Mistress 9, the Dead Moon Circus and Sailor Galaxia, finally teach all of Earth’s governments that Sailor Moon’s ultimate self could keep the Earth safe?

(Though, in the manga, NQS admits she lost most of her power as a Guardian when she ascended the throne.)

How has rankled me. I’d love to think given NQS’s benevolence and her posse of planetary guardians, plus cats, that it was a peaceful transition but the writer in me much prefers some kind of coup d’etat. Not bloodshed but not compliance either.

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So I started writing my own magical girl story about a Latina girl in a US school who becomes the saviour of a planet (complete with merchandising and hard-core PTSD). Tara Morreno is a kid in high school who also happens to be an old enough soul that the Fates have co-opted her into serving as saviour of the planet against a succession of more powerful foes.

Except this is a story in the vein of Madoka Magica, not Sailor Moon, meaning when Tara turns up to school with bruises and a black eye, her best friend Esme thinks she’s being beaten by a family member, her dead-beat father who left when she was small.

She certainly doesn’t think her best friend is fighting against a Dementor-like monster that is leeching the life from a parallel dimension in order to digest the Earth in chunks. Esme has her own role to play in the story because Tara is also, in her civilian life, a gay teen who has deep, unspoken feelings for her best friend. Esme is the one thing that keeps Tara going even when she’s so close to walking away from her life as Infinity Girl or dying in the middle of battle because she’s just not strong enough.

And that’s where I kinda forgot the question and this story became about Tara and Esme, being a magical girl where those wounds leave a mark. This is definitely an origin story and the start of a series of tales focusing on Tara’s adventures and the various creatures trying to take over the planet.

This is going to be fun.

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The Liner Notes: “Sun Glass”

By Chi King (Huangshan, China (YELLOW MOUNTAIN/LANDSCAPE)) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Chi King (Huangshan, China (YELLOW MOUNTAIN/LANDSCAPE)) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m in the processes of working on a redraft (the fourth) of a rather epic story called “Sun Glass”, it’s a secondary world story focusing on a civilisation based on ancient China. Except that the people live on a planet with three moons and a population of shadowy creatures called demons—the native species—who appear at night and do not like the humans one iota.

When I started the story I knew several things for certain:

  • Humans came to this world from somewhere else, aka Earth, documented in a semi-mythicised text called The Annals of the Arrival. But enough time/generations have passed for this to become near mythological.
  • The ‘demons’ were the native inhabitants of the planet, who dwell in the dark and the shadows and are capable of taking partial form as smoke-creatures with coloured, jewel-like eyes.
  • Magic, encapsulated around arts and crafts, words and meaning, exists and the moons of this world can enhance magic.
  • There are specific clans and castes who teach children how to forge a magical weapon from a meteorite or how to capture a spell in glass.
  • Humans either have magical talent or they don’t.
  • The hardest of these professions are the glassweavers, a protective form of magic that shields people from being attacked by demons.
  • Hu Xia, my MC, is a glassweaver of some skill who became one thanks to personal tragedy. She’s also spent her life pretending to be her dead brother, Jin, in order to learn her art.
  • The demons are getting stronger and more bold; no one knows why or how to stop them.
  • Xia must stop them. Because reasons.

This story was unabashedly inspired by TV. I was watching Kevin McCloud’s series on making his man-shed which involved making his own glass, the process captivated me (as does any hobby involving hot things, danger etc). The process was literally magical and thus was Hu Xia born. The story opens with her crafting a magical totem made of glass to protect her village from the demons.

I knew I wanted to set this in a Chinese-based secondary world because, like Japan, ancient China lends itself perfectly to magic. Add in a sci fi angle and a secondary world with a crux focusing on magic and off I went, building a world which included lost villages, angry demons and (though it’s never stated) genetically-engineered sentient unicorns. Oh and, once, there were dragons too.

This is one of those stories where, as I write it, I’m mentally reminding myself I want to submit it to a certain place, in this instance I have the market’s submission guidelines open so I can review them as I go, things like word counts and genre. I’ve got a list, helpfully provided by my crit group, of places if my first choice isn’t successful which helps because I tend to be very narrow-minded and focused when it comes to submission. I want to sell it to X, it doesn’t mean they’ll take it.

This story has been a beast but it reminds me a novelette I think I beta-read for Mary Robinette Kowal a couple of years ago called “A Fire in the Heavens” which was essentially about a journey and this discovery of the unknown. The entire time I was writing “Sun Glass” I couldn’t stop thinking about this story, even though there’s no connection whatsoever with my pseudo-Chinese society on an alien planet. No MRK’s story feel’s epic, even if it’s just over 15k in length and the world was so vibrant, so strange.

I gave the third draft to my crit group a month ago and then, in the wake of their ever so helpful comments, literally pulled the story to pieces and added in what I call a Viola subplot (Yes, guess what I studied for my English GCSE). It actually fit well with the cultural feel of the story and turned Xia into a very active character (something I’ve been having problems writing) which has pleased my beta readers muchly. I can’t help squeeing every time one of my trusted crit group tell me they love something, even if it also means (because they’re good), I have a page by page list of things to fix or clarify.

I can’t help squeeing every time one of my trusted crit group tell me they love something, even if it also means (because they’re good), I have a page by page list of things to fix or clarify. Now I just have to go through, clean it up, check for typos, remove a few over-used words and wait for a rejection so I can submit it to Market No. 1. That’s tomorrow morning in Starbucks and my first coffee accounted for then.

That’s tomorrow morning in Starbucks and my first coffee accounted for then.

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