The title of this post may raise a few eyebrows. As a historian and historical novelist, you may ask, am I not constantly revisiting the past—both the past that we can study from documents and artifacts and the past that has retreated so far into time that we can only hope that, in striving to re-create it, we don’t give birth to a monster that neither did nor could exist?
But that’s not the kind of past I’m writing about this week. Instead, I have in mind the return to a piece of my own past, specifically books I have written and published, then set aside to move on to the next novel in the series. However rewarding it may be to press the buttons that take a book out into the world, there is also a moment of nostalgia, even regret, at saying goodbye to that particular setting, to those individual characters at that moment in their evolution. Although I have lived mentally in the Legends world since 2008—and expect to remain here, in various forms, for many more years—each combination of characters and incidents is unique. As I get ready to release Maria and Alexei and the rest of the Vermilion Bird cast, the need to get the word out also requires me to consider and promote the earlier books in the series. To revisit them, in a sense. Which brings me to the concept of story worlds.
In brief, a story world comprises the vast combination of characters and settings that surround a series or an individual novel. Much of the story world remains invisible to the reader, but it envelops the writer, who must immerse herself in imagining not only what her characters sense and feel and think and interact with but also what they do not see: the unwritten rules of the society that govern their responses in ways they don’t question or realize. Every human community has these rules, and for better or worse we all live by them. We absorb them before we reach the age of independence, and whether we accept or rebel in adulthood, we seldom truly separate ourselves from the world around us. The same applies to literary characters.
Story worlds are most obvious in science fiction and fantasy, where authors construct entire planets based on principles they perceive in our society or trends they can imagine or just wild ideas that came to them in the night. The rules governing those worlds and societies must achieve sufficient consistency that readers will suspend disbelief. In brief, if dragons can fly today, they must fly tomorrow, unless an explanatory (and explained) circumstance shows up to prevent them.
But historical worlds must also be fully explored and understood, as must the intellectual and emotional circumstances driving contemporary novels, if the reader is to believe a given set of characters’ behaviors and motivations.
Creating such a world and such characters takes time. In the midst of a novel—which often requires years to complete, especially at first—the story world becomes all-encompassing. It surrounds the author even when she isn’t writing. I lived in Kasimov and Moscow, then on the steppe, then amid Russia’s northern woods, then in Moscow again. Each journey was different, following a new set of characters or struggling to reconnect with the same ones at later stages in their lives, trying to understand how they might grow and change—and how they would never change, no matter how many conflicts and obstacles I threw at their heads.
That’s why going back, picking up one of the books, and opening it is like taking a journey into my own history: a little strange, sometimes awkward, but often as pleasant as returning to a vacation house I once enjoyed but haven’t seen in years. Sometimes I surprise myself with research I’ve since forgotten or a section—even a turn of phrase—that strikes me as well done. Other sentences remind me that learning to write is a process, one that requires lots of practice, or as J. K. Rowling once put it, “You have to kill a lot of trees before you write anything good.” I could go back and revise, but I know I probably won’t, because other worlds and stories are beckoning. My old friends in their sepia photographs will understand, I think, why I want to move on—especially since I plan to take them with me.
So with all that in mind, I offer you, too, a chance to enter my Legends story world. As noted last week, I am celebrating the imminent release of The Vermilion Bird (Legends 4: South) by placing the Kindle versions of the previous books in the series on sale in the US and UK stores for $2.99. The Winged Horse (Legends 2: East) promotion is running now and will continue through Sunday, December 3, at midnight PST/GMT. The Swan Princess (Legends 3: North) goes on sale at 8 AM PST/GMT on December 4, through Sunday, December 10, at midnight PST/GMT. The Golden Lynx (Legends 1: West) is always priced at $2.99 and is available at Barnes and Noble, the iTunes Store, and certain libraries, as well as Amazon.com.
Images from Clipart, nos. 201458399, 21735960, and 2193507.