Where Does the Story Start?

As I move past Erekos and on to the next project — a sequel that I hope will tie up many unanswered questions and raise new and more troubling questions — I’m becoming more and more aware of where my stories ‘start.’

Many of my fellow-writers say that their stories start with characters, who develop personalities and thoughts and wants before a story can grow around them; some say that their stories start with particular scenes or vivid images, and that the rest of the story is an attempt to realize how that scene could take place or what that image means. For my shorter pieces, this is frequently the case, but when I embark on a novel, I can’t seem to help starting with the world. I can’t figure out what the characters are like until I know where they live, which means that I need to have some idea of where their cities are, where their rivers are, how high the mountains reach and what kinds of trees grow on them. Before I can develop characters as individuals, I want to understand their theologies, their cultural fixations, their taboos and their filial duties. I need to know what regional differences are significant and how, and whether there are alliances that bridge those gaps.

When I was young, I was oddly and powerfully struck by a premise put forth in The Book of Atrus, a novel within the Myst franchise: that writers could create or access worlds if only they could write down every detail of them precisely. Although I don’t believe that I’m creating — let alone merely accessing — a world with an independent existence, I nonetheless feel that it’s important to write worlds that could exist on their own, with a history and a future that extends beyond the front and back covers of the book. I firmly believe that any sufficiently complex world will naturally generate stories worth telling, because such worlds have already been filled with both cultural and natural forces and structures that channel or resist those forces.

In Erekos, although the novel was in many ways the story of Achane or Milaus or Gamela or Erlen, it was also the story of the country itself — like its citizens, Erekos responds to the forces of war and weather. In the sequel, as I cross the mountains and begin to explore Weigenland, I begin by building the world that has birthed both new characters and old.

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