Empress of a Thousand Skies by debut author Rhoda Belleza hits shelves next month, and we were lucky enough to get a peek into the world of this epic sci-fi fantasy tale. We’re so thrilled to reveal this (amazing) world map from Empress of a Thousand Skies! But then we had to ask: how does she do it?! Luckily, Rhoda was kind enough to let us in on some of her secrets of world-building. Read on for a glimpse at the map and some advice from Rhoda herself!
Rhoda on fantasy writing and world-building:
I write better when I write fast, and when I have a story in my head I write it with a pretty intense desperation—like it might disappear. But there’s this competing process in my brain when it comes to world building; I want to bring my A-game, approach it thoughtfully, get a whole lot of stuff in place. The world is so deeply integral to the fantasy and sci-fi that I want to tell, and while there are some things I can figure out on the fly, I need to have a basic scaffolding that I can graft my story onto. This is suuuuper tricky, because I could spend years on this if my editor didn’t hold me accountable. (Ahem, @Tiff_Liao.)
Bad world building is distracting at best, but apocalyptic (figuratively) at worst—I’ve had books fall apart on me because I didn’t have a convincing world to set my narrative in. This isn’t some trade secret. As a reader, a bunch of sirens go off in your big, magnificent brain when things in a book seem random and convenient, when there’s a blank void as you try to picture the setting, when there are cultural choices you just plain don’t understand.
Everyone has their own process. For me that initial spark is always with the characters and their relationships, but even as I’m dreaming up all the ways they’ll fight and love and cry, I address some world building points.
Conflict on a macro scale. I can’t say I like writing about war, but I’m drawn to it—I’m American and we’ve been in some type of military engagement as far back as I can remember. I’m fascinated with the way it’s both sensationalized and hidden in plain sight, so conflict is pretty much the first thing I consider. Do my characters belong to different parties/cultures/sides, and what’s the actual reason they’re fighting? (Versus what’s the reason they think they’re fighting?)
Is it a scramble for natural resources? Are people being religiously persecuted? Is it a good old imperialistic impulse to colonize and expand? It’s usually not one or the other, but a combination of all these things. I like to plop my characters in the middle of this conflict and have them work out what side they’re on, if they chose it of their own accord, if they’ll switch sides, if they’ll burn down the whole system. I rarely know until they do it.
Cultures. Whatever cultures you draw inspiration from, they have their own histories of conflict—shifting alliances, unstable borders, civil war, caste systems. Cultures are absorbed and integrated, religions expanded to incorporate local gods as saints, languages changed and evolved into hybridizations. Sometimes the very ugly, very violent histories bring about cultural shifts.
It’s due diligence to think about the cultures in your book in the same way. Even if they’re made up, there’s something to be said about incorporating their political histories—years, decades, or even centuries before your book takes place. They are as complex as the characters you write about.
Size and Scope. Relatedly, let’s talk scale. Hamlet takes place in a castle, basically. Star Wars takes place in a galaxy that incorporates a WHOLE LOT of stars and planets spread across too many regions for me to memorize. Does your story take place across a cluster of territories or countries or planets? Out of those, how many actually matter in your narrative—and how many are represented by characters of that culture? Can people emigrate from one place to the other? Are there trade routes that facilitate the trade of goods and ideas, which are themselves at the mercy of the natural forces and geological barriers? How expansive the world is will affect how easy or difficult it is for your characters to move across space and, you know, do things…like save the boy, avenge the family, unlock the secret mystery etc.
Technology. Speaking of, how are your characters even getting around? What transportation is available to them? Are we using horse-drawn carriages or Jetsons-like space pods, or a combination thereof? Does it make sense given the time period and world you’ve built?
And it’s not just how quickly they can move—it’s about how quickly ideas can move, too. Even if a globe isn’t technically in play, the term “globalization” maaaay apply. How easy is it to import and export culture: clothing, art, music, entertainment? Does this world have the internet? Or are people delivering letters via courier pigeon? It might seem like a small detail, but at the heart of it is the ultimate question: how are you characters communicating?
That wasn’t by ANY means an exhaustive list, but one that I use to jumpstart the world building. Good luck!