Please welcome K.T. Bryski to the blog!
If You Love the Thing: Worldbuilding in Heartstealer
Heartstealer is set in a backwoods place, a place where the forest runs wild and the streams trill cold and clear. That sense of remoteness, of being up north—it fills the air, mingling with the sharp scents of falling leaves and rising wood-smoke. The village of Grey Run is tiny against Skarland’s rolling green hills and the stately cities to the south. It’s analogous to magic 1860s Ireland—but not.
And it was born among the harsh red rocks of the Outback: 16,626 kilometres from home. I was pretty melancholy.
Modelling: Physical Places
I work at a living history museum, right? We’ve got forty restored nineteenth century buildings on thirty acres of land.
So as I set about building the village of Grey Run, I used our buildings as a model. Some of them, like our early settlers’ log cabin, pulled double-duty. Some survived mostly intact. Others got pumped up, exaggerated. Most of them got moved around. But for the most part, they’re easy to spot.
Why does modelling help? For me, visualization is key. When you know something, when you know all the weird little details that only come through intense familiarity, when you can physically put yourself in the scene, because you’ve physically stood on that spot—it helps nearly everything…
Physical description. Choreographing scenes. The nitty-gritty details that ground your reader in your world (how would they bake bread or brew beer in an 1860s-level society?).
Then there’s love. There’s a beautiful quotation from heritage interpretation theorist Freeman Tilden: “…if you love the thing, you not only have taken the pains to understand it to the limit of your capacity, but you also feel its special beauty in the general richness of life’s beauty.”
When you love something, you know it. When you love something, you know why it’s special: what sets this tavern, this hearth, this farmhouse apart from every other tavern, hearth, and farmhouse. And that is precisely what we need to know as writers. What are the distinctive, unusual, defining traits of this particular place?
Loving the place is half the battle. Is it really any surprise that Heartstealer is my love song to my place?
But you can’t really just plunk some buildings down in a fantasy word and call it a day. There needs to be context and history beyond that. Through the characters I’d developed, I knew that there were two distinct cultures in this country: the native Skars, who had mostly been driven up to the far north, and the Aldorans, who conquered Skarland some several hundred years prior.
This sounded familiar.
Starting about the mid-1500s, England started colonizing Ireland. Early English and Scottish settlers would form the ruling class of future British administrations in Ireland—and the Irish would become a political and economic minority in their own land.
So if our time period in Heartstealer is analogous to the mid-1800s, the Aldoran Conquest happened some 300 years prior. The Skars are a minority, clustered in far, remote northern villages like Grey Run, but relations are mostly peaceable.
For now. My heroine, Sara, meets a Skarrish woman who helps her investigate her husband’s supposed death. If Mairi were ever to travel south with Sara, that lovely, lilting accent of hers would become increasingly more of a problem.
Not that I’m already thinking about that...
Politics aren’t really my strength. I admit that openly. History is another story. Researching similar dynamics and events gives an idea of how people react in these situations. It also opens up a lot of “what if?’ questions that can take your story in a totally different direction.
You know what they say about history: it tends to repeat, especially in fantasy novels.
So, I had a village. I had history. Those are broad strokes—what about the details, the sense that there is more happening offstage?
Honestly, sometimes it’s helpful to throw something down, and then work around it. I made a map of Skarland and Aldoran by tracing a map of England and turning it upside-down. Then I threw cities down in logical places. As long as the name sounded Skarrish or Aldoran, depending, I didn’t fuss too much.
But now I had cities. At one point, a character references a nearby little god in…oh, the village of Wynnemuir. Little gods protect places where the curtain separating our world from the wraith-filled Gloaming is thin. And so…I guess Wynnemuir is vulnerable. Why?
Similarly, as a grad school assignment, I had to write a piece of short fiction in the style of old Irish epics. I opted to write a scene from the Aldoran Conquest—and mostly winged it. It appears nowhere in Heartstealer, but just getting something down deepened my understanding of the conflict.
Decisions can always be changed later. Often, a large part of world-building is just playing.
And with these three things—physical models, historical models, and improvisations—I discovered a world that’s a whole lot of fun to play in. More, it’s a world that feels like home. I hope that you enjoy visiting it, too!
Autumn came early...
Sara Wolfe was told three things:
Her husband and sister-in-law died in a backwater village. Wraiths are only stories. Her nephew needs her.
She believes none of it.
Following her husband’s supposed death, Sara travels to Grey Run in search of answers, quickly becoming embroiled in the village’s old hurts and older magic -
Grey Run sits on the crossroads between the human realm and the Gloaming: a shadowy world of ghosts and little gods. With the curtain between the worlds thinning, Sara must unravel the truth behind her husband’s disappearance—
Because the wraiths are not the only ones lurking in the night.
KT Bryski is a Canadian author and podcaster. She made her podcasting and publishing debut with Hapax, an apocalyptic fantasy (Dragon Moon Press) and she has stories in Black Treacle Horror Magazine, When the Hero Comes Home Vol. II, Tales from the Archives, and Tales of a Tesla Ranger.
Select playwriting credits include Key of D Minor (Sears Ontario Drama Festival) various scripts for Black Creek Pioneer Village, and East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon (Canadian Children’s Opera Company). KT also manages The Black Creek Growler, the official blog of the Black Creek Historic Brewery. She is currently at work on her next novel while pursuing her MFA through the Stonecoast Creative Writing Programme at the University of Southern Maine. As you may have guessed, she also has a mild caffeine addiction. Visit her at www.ktbryski.com.
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