Saturday, 30 April 2011

Andrew Peters - Ravenwood - The Art of Building a Fictional World From Scratch


book cover of 

Ravenwood 

by

Andrew Fusek Peters
                               
Today is the launch date for a great fantasy adventure. This book has managed to find its way into some very lucky books shops slightly earlier than expected! As a big fan of all things fantasy, I managed to pick up on this book some time ago and believe that Barry, and the team at Chicken House, have published another winner in my opinion. See my review.

I would like to thank Andrew for taking the time out of his busy schedule to write this post. I'm sure you'll enjoy reading it as it's a good one - it gives a real insight into the world of writing, and a sneaky preview into the world of Ravenwood.


The art of building a fictional world from scratch........
Is fiction simply a kind of lie, albeit one that needs to be utterly convincing? This thought struck me years ago when listening to Michael Morpurgo talking  about the ‘who, what, how and why’ of creating a fictional world from scratch. This was in reference to his book, Kensuke’s Kingdom. If a boy is on an island, he asked, how did he get there? Why is he there? What does he eat? 

Beginning with a single idea and then answering these questions provides training for the imagination. And so to the world of my novel Ravenwood. Being a rather tall person (six foot eight and a half), I can’t think where I got the idea of an island covered in very, very tall trees! However, once I had found that initial spark, this was where the real work started. If a tree was over a mile high, how would my characters (who I call Dendrans - very like humans but with slightly longer fingers – useful for climbing and holding on) actually live up in the canopy without ever coming down to earth? This was my ‘who, what, how and why’ moment. It is all very well to create a world from an idea, but then you have to make that world work. The eco-system has to follow its own internal logic. All questions must be anticipated - the answers woven unobtrusively into the story. The lie must be believable, the reader enchanted.

So, to create this world I began with the basics: I grew excited about water (source of all life). Normal-sized trees have tiny capillary tubes called xylem that suck up water from the roots – they are about a millimetre across. This fact may be  rather dull and scientific by itself, but  what if the tree is a mile high? Suddenly these xylem turn into huge vertical, twisting tunnels that rise deep from the roots and up into the crowns of these massive trees. Here we have a source of water – tapped into by the Dendrans to create aqueducts (made from zinc and iron, mined by those who live deep in the roots underground), springs and cruckpools high above the ground. Ah, but what is a cruckpool? Once on a walk, I found a hawthorn hedge that had grown into a tree. Where the right angled branch stuck out of the trunk, there was a tiny, natural hollow about three inches across, filled with water. In my mind’s eye I was diving in and going for a swim! And in the world of Ravenwood, that pool is now twenty feet across and perfect for an early autumn dip!

How do the Dendrans who live up in the trees get about? The wonders  of carpentry and basic engineering  have been applied to the canopy – branches flattened out, joined and sprung together with cantilevered supports to form high woodways that criss-cross the whole wide-wood. What materials would be used for shelter? The giant leaves, each bigger than a full grown Dendran, when dried and tanned are stronger than leather and make excellent roofing material for houses.  Where would food come from? Giant platforms, angled southwards, are built between trunks. Soil is created from generations of Dendran sewage. (There are a lot of poo jokes in Ravenwood. I can’t help it. My ten year old son agrees that my sense of humour has never grown up!) This, along with composted leaves and mulch, transform into soil that fills the acres of scaffields to grow the crops to feed the population.

 Gradually, a picture of life high up in the forest emerges. And yet all the time, this is simply the backdrop to a very fast moving story – a plot against the king  who lives in Barkingham Palace (yes, plenty of puns too) .
So, the story. This is all-important. Having created a world from scratch, the author must not get carried away. The danger we fiction writers must avoid is too much description. The author has to know that the world works and must make sure the reader’s questions about how the world works are answered. However always above and beyond location, location, location is story, story, story. Story MUST come first.

With plot, the same rules of who, how, what and why apply. Who is the hero? Arktorius Malikum, known as Ark. Why is he running for his life along a branch in the opening chapter? Because he has overheard a plot against the king. What’s a fourteen year old sewage worker to do? Well, I can’t answer that question here. Only the book can. But I will tell you that information is danger: it’s the tight spring that is bound up with motive, that sets in motion all the events that follow. 

The art of good fiction, of the creative con artist – is to make the reader believe in this world, this story, this character. In Ravenwood I wanted to grab hold of the reader’s imagination and make each reader ‘root’ for Ark and his friends in their desperate quest to save the wooded, treetop country of Arborium.

Happy Reading!

Andrew Peters

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