World Building Q&A with Julie Czerneda, author of A Turn of Light

I had the pleasure of virtually sitting down last week with science fiction and fantasy author Julie Czerneda. We had a fantastic Skype conversation about her new book A Turn of Light, and she indulged me while I picked her brain about everything world building, from the research she did to the things that inspired her.

A Turn of Light

A Turn of Light Cover

Cover Art, Matt Stawicki

The village of Marrowdell is an isolated pioneer community, but it is also the place where two worlds overlap, and at the turn of light—sunset—the world of magic known as the Verge can briefly be seen.

Jenn Nalynn belongs to both Verge and Marrowdell, but even she doesn’t know how special she is—or that her invisible friend Wisp is actually a dragon sent to guard her… and keep her from leaving the valley. But Jenn longs to see the world, and thinking that a husband will help her reach this goal, she decides to create one using spells. Of course, everything goes awry, and suddenly her “invisible friend” has been transformed into a man. But he is not the only newcomer to Marrowdell, and far from the most dangerous of those who are suddenly finding their way to the valley…

Tell us about yourself!

Julie Czerneda author photo credit Roger Czerneda Photography

Roger Czerneda Photography

I’m Canadian, I’m a biologist, I’ve been published since 1985 in non-fiction, worked for about 25 years in that field, then in 1997 my first novel came out. About two years after that I began to write fiction full time. So although you can never take the biologist out of a person, I make my living as a writer and have for many, many years.

How does being a biologist inform your writing? I understand this is your first foray into fantasy?

It is indeed! I’ve done a few short stories and one novella, but this is my first full, complete, world-building novel. The rest of my stuff is science fiction. I’ve got 13 novels out from DAW and they’re all biology-based, not only in terms of the initial question that informs the story, but also all those little icky bits I’ve thrown in for real-life accuracy. I have great joy in that.

I have noticed a crazy attention to detail in A Turn of Light, characters doing little things, trimming lamps and such, and the specificity gave great tension to those already-exciting deciding moments.

That also helped me make it feel like it wasn’t just happening today, in our real world. I wasn’t trying to write any kind of urban fantasy; I wanted more of a classic feel, but not the medieval.

So what kind of research did you do for that? I read that you did a lot of walking around pioneer villages in Ontario.

Julie Czerneda log buildings

Scouting the log buildings of Muskoka Heritage Place, Huntsville.
Roger Czerneda Photography

Yes, I set it in the Renfrew area. There’s a lot of stuff there that still survives because those log cabins, they don’t just break down. Even the ones that aren’t preserved are still standing. So looking at the physical structure was important, reading accounts of the day was important, and you can always Google little details; like when I had to look up how somebody would shave, or what they would carry with them, or what kind of inks they’d use, or pens. Little details like that. I’d go online and search something like “lamps from Bulgaria, 17th century”, or walk around antique shops. The objects would find their way into the story slightly modified, but definitely inspired by the real things.

So you’d place this in about the 17th century?

Late 17th century. I’m blurring it between late 17th and early 18th because different areas develop at different paces. I wanted a blend of them having steam and maybe even electricity…those advancements happened over a period of time, so I smushed a bunch of them together. There’s no one year. If that Bulgarian lamp was from the 1700s and I wanted to use it on an 1800s tabletop, I wouldn’t care. It’s not meant to be a historical representation.

It is fantasy, after all.

It’s a pool I’ve drawn from.

When did you stop researching and start writing, or was it an ongoing thing? Do you think you can pinpoint when you got the idea for this novel?

Well, Turn is a little different from some of the other stuff I’ve done. I wrote the initial paragraph probably in the early 90s, late 80s, just as a one-off thing. I liked the image of a girl sitting in a meadow with pollen swirling about by an invisible friend. But I only started taking notes for Turn on September 30th, 2002. I have the exact date in a journal of mine. That’s when I got serious enough to put words down. I got contracted for it several years later, in 2008, didn’t start researching the era until 2009, and that’s when I settled on the pioneer setting as my background. I drove around Ontario with my husband that summer, visiting places, doing this fairly intensely just to get me started and to build the model of Marrowdell that I made. But with the extra details it was on-going. When I needed something for characters to be doing that felt natural in those moments of tension that you mentioned, that kind of research was constant.

Julie Czerneda miller

Inspecting the quality of flour with the miller. Watson’s Mill, Manotick.
Roger Czerneda Photography

That’s so much time. Personally, if I’ve been thinking about something for a while, there comes a point where I feel I’ll never be able to do it justice. Have you had moments of doubt where you thought that you had this world in your head and it’s just become too big?

Not too much. Once I felt like I knew the world, it was a case of just being in it. And I think that’s the experience of having done a lot of world-building for my other books. The other thing is that the story takes place in such a small part of the world, and I had so much outside of it that I knew so well, that people could bring things—jewellery, boxes—and bring the larger world in with them. The Verge, the part of the universe that’s magic, was perhaps the scariest part to write because I wanted it to feel almost psychedelic.

It did.

Thank you. I didn’t want to pin it down but there had to be some things to grasp or the readers would lose it. So in the Verge I focused, if you noticed, mostly on what lives there. In answer to your question, any hesitation or fear I had during writing, of which I had my moments, was mostly about, did it sound like a good story? I mean, I liked it, but it was new.

What about the characters? Are you the type of author that takes inspiration from people you know, or are you more a victim of the characters writing themselves?

I’m actually the third thing; I develop characters to do what I want.

Well said!

They don’t surprise me. Plot surprises me, but not characters. I feel like I really have to know them. They’re my toolbox, and if I don’t have good tools, it’s really not going to work. That said, there were a few characters that were enriched by people I know. A friend’s smile, or a body build, a familiar detail. The main character Jenn Nalynn shares my daughter’s name and my daughter’s wanderlust.

Speaking of wanderlust, in terms of the general world outside of Marrowdell, the other lands and countries, did you base their politics or people on a real-world model?

A little bit. I did some reading about the Balkans of that era, of their own political system and the system that the British had brought over, and I was very much interested in that turn from actual royalty to royalty in name only. For quite a while, princes and kings had some kind of power in the parliament, but as time went by it became more and more an influence peddling situation, so in my world I have it all at a point where there is still nobility, but you see it evolving. That way it lets me make Rhoth seem a bit backward to other countries. In Rhoth, everybody’s been moving through it, settling it, running around, but the other countries are older and more established. They have their own way of doing things.

Julie Czerneda map sketch

A rough sketch of the map of the land in A Turn of Light.

We find out very quickly in the book that not everybody can live in Marrowdell. Some people are driven away by intense nightmares. Tell us about the dreams.

I liked the idea of a place where you either fit or you didn’t. But I didn’t want to make it a lock and key, I wanted to make it more…Well, we all know people who just can’t read science fiction and fantasy. And I sort of feel sorry for them because their imaginations have been turned in a certain direction at a fairly young age, I think, and they really just can’t enjoy it. And I wanted to sort those people out in Marrowdell.


I wasn’t trying to be mean about it, but there are those people who have that wide open heart, and people who don’t.

I hope you don’t mind me including this?

Yeah, yeah, go for it!

Julie Czerneda Marrowdell model

Building the model of Marrowdell.
Roger Czerneda Photography

Anything else you’d like to add, then?

Well, about research. I’ve enjoyed getting emails from readers of my science fiction who are biologists, or archaeologists, or whatever. Now I really love hearing from people who appreciate the history that goes into building a world like in Turn. It’s not that I need a pat on the back for doing my work well, it just means that I’ve put the detail in appropriately and not made a mistake. So I always try to do my research well. But there needs to be restraint. There have been things that I put in for history’s sake that I had to twist a bit in order to not throw off the entire dynamic of a plot thread. It was those times when I got myself trapped by historical accuracy that I had to remind myself that, you know what, this is my world, and as long as it’s credible and reasonable, I can do whatever I want.

Indeed. Thanks for the awesome advice and insight, Julie!

Look out for Julie’s new book A Turn of Light, in stores now, and see her world building in action! Alternatively, you could win a copy with our sweet giveaway below. To enter, leave a comment on this post about your own world building methods and give this interview a twitter shout out. And if you don’t win one with us, head down to Julie Czerneda’s website and check out her Awesome TURN Blog Tour Contest, where she’ll be doing her own giveaways as well.

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33 Responses to World Building Q&A with Julie Czerneda, author of A Turn of Light

  1. Laura McM. Apr 12 2013 at 10:25 am #

    I definitely will be reading this one! Thanks for the interview, too. I love how Julie’s Biology has bled into some of her books, especially being a scientist myself. I also appreciated the attention to detail she obviously has given to her stories. The model of Marrowdell?? AWESOME!

    • Julie Czerneda Apr 12 2013 at 10:29 am #

      Thanks, Laura! It’s hard to keep the biologist out of a story, actually. I indulged in a few things — damselflies and asters come to mind, and there’s a very accurate old pony. Most of the detail work for Marrowdell went into the life of the villagers and what they’d have in their homes. Hope you enjoy!

  2. Jasmine Stairs Apr 12 2013 at 10:26 am #

    For me it’s important that I know the history of a place. I also love history, so I can get carried away, but I’m interested in why people act a certain way. What and why are the class divides? Are there racial tensions– and why? What interactions with other cultures are there, and how does that affect what people wear and eat? How do people feel about the government? And so on.

    • Julie Czerneda Apr 12 2013 at 10:32 am #

      I find developing something of the history of any world I’ve “built” gives me more to say, and more confidence saying it, for just the reasons you mention, Jasmine. If you read science fiction as well, I’d recommend _In the Company of Others_ to you, since for that I not only had the history of how the situation came to be, but how different people were changed and that result. Having that gave me an immense amount to write about that felt real and credible. I think so, ::grins:: Thanks for your comment.

  3. Kelly M Apr 12 2013 at 10:37 am #

    I have really enjoyed reading the various blog tour entries and am very much looking forward to reading this book! I really appreciate the level of detail with which you build the world as I have noticed in your other works it allows the work to flow so beautifully! Very much looking forward to this one.

    • Julie Czerneda Apr 12 2013 at 12:23 pm #

      Thanks, Kelly! Always delightful to have the details noticed. I’m having a wonderful time reading comments and getting excited by the response to TURN. It’s a special book to me. Love the interest!

  4. Alexa Y. Apr 12 2013 at 10:44 am #

    I loved reading this interview! It was fascinating to learn a little bit about how the world was built for the book, and it’s also interesting to note the amount of research and care that went into it. I, myself, have a hard time with world-building. Characters usually come to me first, then the world shows it self (odd, I know). I think though, what I usually do, is I “draw” (that’s in quotation marks, because I am NO artist) a map and label the places and then pick a few words to describe them.

    • Julie Czerneda Apr 12 2013 at 2:40 pm #

      Nothing odd about it, Alexa. For some of my stories, characters are ready and waiting, then I need to work out the rest. That’s especially the case in a series like the Web Shifters, where in each book the main characters visit a variety of worlds. Them I know, the worlds have to be made up on the spot.
      Map making or any sketch is a great help. Sometimes I’ll do that for a room, so I know who is standing closest to a door or window.
      Glad you enjoyed.

  5. Patchi Apr 12 2013 at 1:47 pm #

    Thanks Julie for a great post! There are so many things that go into world building and the little details are what make the world special. I’m a plant biologist so I pay particular attention to what is grown on each of the planets in my stories. Once, someone mentioned that they hated when characters sat around eating stew because no one ever said what was in the stew. Now I make sure I show the basic ingredients in all my cooking/eating scenes.

    • Julie Czerneda Apr 12 2013 at 2:45 pm #

      A botanist! A botanist! (I do get excited when I meet a fellow biology person.) Plants, in TURN, have several functions as well as being themselves. There’s the whole “pioneers used everything” aspect, but also I’ve things that are not at all natural. The changing seasons are shown mostly through plants as well, since the setting is essential central Ontario Canada, where seasons do change (today’s freezing rain not being normally part of spring, mind you). As for the cooking? When it matters, ie the preparation and/or ingredients shows us about the world/characters, then details belong there. That said, emergency rations from a tube work very well in SF when there’s nothing to be gained by the description. I did have some fun with food that had little hairs growing out of it. Decorative “hair.”

  6. Rosanna Silverlight Apr 12 2013 at 2:37 pm #

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful interview, Biljana! Is the giveaway open internationally?

    I loved reading about your world, Julie, and I look forward to reading A Turn of Light. The idea behind it is fantastic! I also loved all the great ideas you threw in there – the one about looking around antique stores and the objects working their way into the story is definitely something I could enjoy doing!

    • Julie Czerneda Apr 12 2013 at 2:49 pm #

      Thanks, Rosanna. I don’t get out as often as I’d like — especially in winter — so I’ve been using OneNotes to grab and save images from antique sites for my research. I thought I’d try PinInterest, but to date I confess to being daunted. I don’t need any time sinks, if you know what I mean.
      Catalogues are another resource I use often. Lee Valley’s feature recreations of antique tools and hardware to inspire. I wrote an entire novella (“Intended Words”) after discovering the pen making page. That’ll be a novel down the road. The novella, not the page 😉

    • Biljana Apr 12 2013 at 4:12 pm #

      Glad you enjoyed it, and it is most definitely open internationally!

  7. Caryn Apr 12 2013 at 4:35 pm #

    Thank you for this. And it’s a wonderful book. I’m a history major so I noticed all the world building that went on in the background, why Marrowdell was founded, what the politics were like outside, etc. Was great.

    • Biljana Apr 13 2013 at 12:47 pm #

      Yeah you could really tell the world around Marrowdell was as developed as Marrowdell itself. Glad you enjoyed the interview!

    • Julie Czerneda Apr 13 2013 at 3:42 pm #

      Thanks!! I find myself, as I get serious about the next book, fretting a little that I may have forgotten some of that detail. I know I haven’t, but it can’t hurt to do a smidge of review 😉

  8. Llehn Apr 13 2013 at 12:47 am #

    I find images of what I envision a place to look like and go from there, adding the place’s own logic as I go along.

    • Biljana Apr 13 2013 at 12:48 pm #

      Surefire method if I ever heard one. I do that sometimes, too.

      • Julie Czerneda Apr 13 2013 at 3:44 pm #

        I’ll collect photos as well, especially ones I can put on my wall. Scourge owes his “look” to a calendar of heavy horses/stallions I received years ago. Took out that month and pinned it near my desk. For Species Imperative, set in BC’s northern coast, I plastered photos from tour guides and Canadian Geographic where I could glance up and see them. Whatever helps!

  9. Chantal Mason Apr 13 2013 at 1:52 am #

    Very cool interview! Julie Czerneda is actually my friend’s mother! I knew she wrote science fiction, but I hadn’t heard about her debut into fantasy. I’ll have to go check it out. I’m from Ottawa, Ontario, so it’s also really fun to see pictures and a world built around somewhere I know!

    • Biljana Apr 13 2013 at 12:50 pm #

      I haven’t read her science fiction, but I can say her fantasy is damn solid! How awesome that you have that connection with her!

      • Julie Czerneda Apr 13 2013 at 3:45 pm #

        ::beams:: Chantal, I’ll be signing in Ottawa this Thursday, at the Rideau Centre Chapters, noon till 1:30. If you’re still in the area. Then we’ve a big event planned at Watson’s Mill, during their opening May 4th. That’ll be all day and I’ll have the model with me.

  10. Robin Hall Apr 13 2013 at 12:13 pm #

    Excellent interview. Julie sounds like a really fun, interesting lady. I’d love to hear her speak on day. I especially appreciated what she said about her characters being her toolbox.

    So far in my world building I have based my physical locations, at least, off places I have lived or visited and let my imagination run amok to develop the rest.

    • Biljana Apr 13 2013 at 12:52 pm #

      Julie had a ready answer for every question I asked. She really knows her stuff! Glad you enjoyed the interview.

      • Julie Czerneda Apr 13 2013 at 3:46 pm #

        It helped that you’re such a great interviewer, Biljana. It was a pleasure chatting with you.

  11. Leigh Smith Apr 16 2013 at 8:21 am #

    Wow. Just wow. The depth of your world building boggles the mind. Mine, so far, consists of taking a historical place, Boston, and changing it just enough. I like that it’s not exactly accurate so that I can keep the layout I had in my mind when I started writing. I’m trying to mostly keep the conventions of the time (1881), however. I’ve been building my magic system but find that to be the hardest part. I know some of the things I want the people in my world to be capable of, I just need to figure out how/why it works.
    The fact that Julie worked on this book, or had at least been thinking about it for a couple of decades, blows my mind. I hope this book doesn’t take that long. I don’t think I’d be able to stick to it. That takes some major dedication, so bravo!

    • Julie Czerneda Jul 11 2013 at 2:22 pm #

      Thanks, Leigh! I like your approach. Nice to have some maps and tech laid out. Hope you enjoy, as I do, when you pull away from the real. Yup. The hardest part.
      It wasn’t too hard sticking to it, as you say, simply because 90% of my time was being spent in other worlds and stories. TURN just kept bugging me, so to speak. All the best with your book!

  12. Melissa Apr 17 2013 at 1:26 pm #

    Oooh….sounds great and a Canadian novel, too? Definitely have to read this one. Thanks for the interview and giveaway. 🙂

    • Julie Czerneda Jul 11 2013 at 2:23 pm #

      Thanks, Melissa! I hope you enjoy. (As for Canadian, my Species Imperative novels are set in B.C. as well as Ontario, in part. In case you’re looking for more such settings.)

  13. Darith L. Apr 17 2013 at 6:18 pm #

    I think research! Research the city in the llibrary or online. 😀

  14. Shelver506 Apr 18 2013 at 8:50 pm #

    I don’t write, so I don’t really have methods. I do like it, though, when small, pertinent details are sprinkled in for a more realistic world.

    • Julie Czerneda Jul 11 2013 at 2:25 pm #

      Small details make it all seem more real, indeed. I liken it to glancing around a busy scene, such as a street. There’s always something small you notice, rather than the whole landscape. Someone’s bag. A sign. Perhaps the sound of a busker’s music. The trick’s to find the right detail.

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