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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.