Building the World of Conjuror Girl: a guest post

I’m thrilled to welcome SF/F author Stephen Palmer to the blog as he stops by on the tour for his brand new Conjuror Girl trilogy. And for a double treat: a guest post AND an interview!

The Conjuror Girl trilogy, which includes Monique Orphan, Monica Orvan, and Monica Hatherly, is published by Infinite Press. Monique, an orphan in an alternate Victorian England, has a strange talent normally only found in men. It is a talent that turns men bad and drives them to seek power, but must it do this to Monique too?

The Delicate Balance of Worldbuilding, by Stephen Palmer

The foundations of stories need to be strong and deep, for if not the structures built upon them collapse. Authors know this – they build worlds, discovering people who live in those worlds. If their worldbuilding is flimsy, the narrative falls apart and the people never have a chance to reveal themselves. No book.

I’m lucky. I’ve always had a vivid imagination, which when I was sending around what became my debut Memory Seed helped lodge the world of Kray in my soon-to-be editor’s mind. Like plant roots, the foundations of Memory Seed were strong.

There are certain rules in worldbuilding which I think help if you know them. In my new Conjuror Girl trilogy, the world is an alternate Victorian Britain – 1899/1900, in a gothic version of my home town of Shrewsbury. The world I built therefore had a curious property which I’ve rarely encountered before, that of pre-existing. My job in making the world of Conjuror Girl was to transmute something already in existence. I can tell you that this task was enormous fun. “Task” in fact is not the right word – relish is better.

One of these tricks of worldbuilding is detail. I learned this early on when, critiquing a poor early version of Memory Seed, my beta reader made comments on a tiny detail which for him brought the world alive: graffiti scrawled in green algae covering a street computer display. I saw again what he had seen; saw it through his eyes. That detail signified people doing what people always do. The city was alive.

Graffiti and algae were enough to signify to the reader what Kray was like. Everything else the reader would bring themselves. And this is an important lesson. Too much detail is as bad as too little. You have to get it just right. Too little, and there’s not enough to spark the reader’s imagination. Too much and they don’t have anything to do.

In Conjuror Girl I wanted to convey a dark, grim, forbidding town. I chose certain details of the real town, exaggerating them for gothic effect. I made sure St Alkmund’s Cemetery was as spooky as possible, including a semi-sentient tree and tomb-inhabiting anti-bees. Meanwhile, the bell fruits of the Bell Tree, which is described as if it is made of non-living material, can be eaten once rung – unless rusty, that is; then they’ve gone off. When I imagined a tavern in Fish Street, for some reason a dog sung from a high window.

Another trick is Gene Wolfe’s classic advice: appeal to the senses. What colours mark the conjurations of the Reifiers? Only purple and orange. What do you hear when you’re by the river? The twang of swans’ wings. What do Etis Gmu’s pillows smell of? Lavender.

Worldbuilding is like consciousness. Our minds notice details in the real world, but the rest of it we fill in ourselves. Readers do this. Too little and they’re starved, too much and they’re overwhelmed.

An Interview With Stephen

JSM: From the Edwardian steampunk world of your Factory Girl trilogy, to the cyberpunk future of Beautiful Intelligence, or the psychedelic surrealism of Hairy London, setting is a huge part of your work, almost a character in its own right. What are some of the real-world inspirations for your work, and in particular for your Conjuror Girl trilogy?

It’s been observed that for an author with a lot of SF in his catalogue I almost never go into space. But I like to stay on Earth because it’s this planet and its future which interest me. So, in the broadest view, the whole planet is my setting. Individual real-world settings though are particularly important for me. Sometimes they’re greatly transformed versions of real places, as in Memory Seed, the soot-black gothic Mavrosopolis (Istanbul) of The Rat & The Serpent, or the madcap re-imagining of London gone hirsute in Hairy London. Occasionally they’re entirely imaginary, for example the hallucinatory river island of Tommy Catkins. For Conjuror Girl I was inspired by my home town of Shrewsbury. I grew up nearby and went to school there. It’s usually regarded as Britain’s finest Tudor town, and for many years I’d wanted to set a novel there. Walking around the streets and alleys beneath some of the finest black-and-white buildings in Britain was more than enough inspiration, though, me being me, I made the novel’s version much more gothic. Some of the localities I left as they are, but I mutated some streets and added a few extras of my own.

JSM: Following on from the previous question, what comes first for you, plot or setting? What drives the creative process when you’re writing something new?

Generally, this works in two parallel ways. I’ll have an idea of the kind of novel I want to write – for instance, an AI novel – and usually there’ll be some character who is the inspiration. The best example of that is Kora, the titular Girl With Two Souls of the Factory Girl trilogy. Tommy Catkins himself would be another, though he appeared along with his watery setting. Sometimes though there are small but vivid mental images which are the key, for instance the two I had when walking around Windsor Great Park in the early 1990s, images which went on to inspire Memory Seed. Plot always comes second, following on from character. Even with a tech-driven novel like Beautiful Intelligence it was the two main characters, Leonora and Manfred, who drove the idea to split the plot into two sections. My creative process these days is to put down the best possible first draft of a novel. This is a risky strategy, against intuition and the usual writerly advice, but what I aim to achieve is to transfer the “magic” and “wonder” of what I myself am experiencing for the first time onto the printed page. If I can do this to my own satisfaction, I know my readers should also feel that vibe. I find that second and subsequent drafts almost always lose their special glamour. For less experienced writers this is not the way to go, but when you get to my age it becomes a possibility. Some of these intense first drafts don’t work however – those are the novels that don’t get published. I’ve accumulated a few now…

JSM: You’ve dabbled in a wide variety of science fiction and fantasy sub-genres. What are some of the challenges this versatility brings? How do you make the switch from one genre to another when starting a fresh project, and do you have any tips for writers who would like to work across different genres?

To be honest, genres and sub-genres are of minor significance to me. I’ll usually have an idea of which one a novel might appear in, but I never write to that genre. All my novels are their own things. The Factory Girl trilogy for instance is categorised as steampunk, but that example lies outside what steampunk is usually considered to be. I don’t sense any challenges, I just write what I need to write, and do it with absolute conviction and sincerity. It’s true that my fans don’t know what they’re going to get next, but they do at least know they’ll get something written with conviction, and which, in a lot of cases, will be unlike anything on the market. My tip therefore is that most difficult of pieces of advice – you have to be your own brand. For most new writers that’s an impossibility because of the state of the market and the nature of books, but for more established authors (Kim Stanley Robinson is a good example) it is possible to be successful in a variety of genres and styles. The other thing worth mentioning is that my publisher is a British indie, which means I have more opportunity to present fresh or unusual novels. No large publishing house in their right mind would accept a novel like Hairy London. My relationship with my tolerant, understanding and insightful editor is a large part of why I’ve been able to do the work I’ve done over the last seven years.

JSM: From climate change to women’s rights, you never shy away from asking tough questions in your work. Do these topics emerge organically when you write, or are they an integral part of the plotting and outlining process? And how did you decide which underlying political themes you wanted to include in your Conjuror Girl trilogy?

They’re always integral and they’re always there from the beginning. I remember my first editor saying something to me, that Memory Seed contained what he called “stuff” – by which he meant ethical or philosophical content. A writer to me is someone who has something inside them that must come out into the open via the medium of words. Writing is so often self-discovery. I have a lot to say. Many people disagree with me of course, and that’s good – part of global debate. But I love that aspect of being an author, which I’ve extended into the opinion pieces on my blog. For Conjuror Girl, the main theme is selfishness, which I’ve written extensively about (narcissism) on my blog. This theme underpins the action, which follows the tale of Monique, later Monica, an orphan in the year 1899 with a talent only men are supposed to possess. The novel is also about how men dominate and control cultural thought via patriarchy. But I expect Monica gives those backward-looking, domineering old men a good run for their money…

JSM: We’ve talked about themes, genres, settings… For anyone familiar with your work, it might seem you’ve already covered a huge amount of ground with your published books, but as any writer knows, there’s always room for more ideas. What’s on your wishlist for the future? Are there any settings or sub-genres you haven’t tackled yet and would like to try your hand at?

Not really. There are concepts and formats I haven’t successfully managed yet. I have a love of inns and taverns, and many years ago set a fantasy novel entirely inside a roadside tavern. I think it worked fairly well, though the writing wasn’t great, and it never got anywhere. One editor remarked that fantasy novels tend to be set in huge, expansive worlds, not tiny ones. But it was the challenge of writing a novel set only inside one inn that appealed to me. So I will try that again. I also have still to write a novel composed only of dialogue and incidental action. Recently I’ve become much more interested in dialogue than I used to be. My book The Autist was set in such a way that the internal thoughts of only one character were made plain to the reader, with all the others’ only revealed by dialogue, of which there was a lot. Some readers didn’t like that, but some did. I’m also fascinated by dialect. So my plan is to write a novel set entirely inside an inn composed only of dialogue. I’m sure I could do it with the right characters and themes. Apart from that, I do feel the urge to return to very far future SF. My novel Urbis Morpheos (“A failed experiment.” – SF Foundation) was an attempt to present the reader with a wholly unfamiliar planet Earth. I aim to have another attempt.

The three books of The Conjuror Girl trilogy are out now and available for purchase through all major online booksellers.

For more information on the author and his work, as well as links to the other guest posts on Stephen’s blog tour, please visit his website: stephenpalmersf.wordpress.com

All image rights: Stephen Palmer

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