You may know Rachel Neumeier as the author of House of Shadows and The Floating Islands – but what you may not know is, her new novel, Black Dog, came out today! So in celebration of release day, here’s Rachel to talk about one of my favorite things about her books: world-building. So take it away, Rachel!
Writing in the contemporary world
Of all the books I’ve ever written – published or not – Black Dog is the first I’ve ever set in the contemporary world rather than a secondary world. Or at least, a world that looks contemporary to a first glance.
It made for a dramatically different writing experience.
For example, names. Names are difficult enough when you’re writing a secondary world fantasy – you try to create names for people and places that all sound basically like they could have come out of the same language, that look interesting on the page, and that don’t look like normal American English names. You have to be careful in other ways, too – for example, names that end in –el are going to sound Elvish to many readers, so if that’s not what you want, you can’t use that ending for names. It’s nice if the main characters have names that are more or less pronounceable, though personally I always loved interesting names as a reader – Meadhbh, say, from CJ Cherryh’s Arafel’s Saga. (I have since learned the hard way that not every reader enjoys names like that as much as I do.)
But contemporary names, though they are easy for most (American) readers to pronounce, offer a different kind of challenge: You don’t necessarily want names that have recently been ultra-common. Even if you like the name and it fits the character, surely you’ve noticed that it’s a little distracting to read a book where a main character shares your name, right? Why set that up to be a problem for lots of potential readers? You also don’t want to carelessly give a character of the wrong age a name that’s strongly associated with a particular decade. Many of your American readers know roughly how old most Jennifers are, so a character of the “wrong” age with that name may not “feel right.”
Most importantly, the names you choose have to sound like your character. Eustace, Montgomery, and Peter are not interchangeable – and that’s just sticking to names with an English heritage. In Black Dog, of course, my point-of-view characters needed Mexican names, not English names. I had been longing to use the name “Natividad” ever since Octavia E Butler gave that name to a minor character in Parable of the Sower, and seized this chance.
Writing in a contemporary-ish setting offers more challenges than just choosing names, of course. Even though the world of Black Dog is not exactly like ours, I did so much more research for it than I have ever had to do for a secondary world. For example, several important towns in Black Dog sort of exist in our world, but not really. Lewis, Vermont, for example, was incorporated as a town waaay back when and, while the name is still on some maps, is now listed as having a population of zero. In my world, it is a thriving, if somewhat unusual, community – and the directions I give my characters for getting there would work, if there was really a town there.
I have never been to Vermont. I looked at lots of pictures of New England towns so I could write descriptions, and looked up geographical facts – did you know Vermont is only 37 miles wide along its border with Massachusetts? I had no idea. The chunk of Vermont I gave to Dimilioc really is sometimes referred to as the “Northeast Kingdom,” though in my world there is a much more obvious reason for that name. I also looked up lists of regional trees, yearly average temperature ranges, and so forth. Did you know that there are eight kinds of granite in Vermont? Barre gray, Bethel white, galactic blue, Salisbury pink, American black, gardenia white, Louretian pink, and Stanstead grey. (That detail didn’t make it into the book, but isn’t it kind of neat?)
Since my protagonists are actually from Northern Mexico and I’ve never been there, either, I had to look up all the same kind of information for Nuevo León, too. I made my protagonist’s mother’s family be from Hualahuises because I loved the name, but gave their actual home village as Potosi – in our world, the village of Potosi is listed as having a population of fifteen. In the world of Black Dog, it was a real village until very recently.
Climate and seasons, terrain, industrialization, typical religious affiliation, plant lists, wildlife, everything. I have pages of notes, leading to a word or phrase or sentence here or there – but I think they are correct words and phrases and sentences. I hope they are. Though, of course, the world of Black Dog really doesn’t look quite like our world except to a superficial glance. It is not really contemporary – not exactly. But I want the differences to be in there for a reason, not because I got a detail wrong accidentally.
Secondary world fantasy is easier, I think. But I did have fun building the near-contemporary world of Black Dog. I hope you have fun visiting that world, too.
I certainly did! And thank you again, Rachel, for dropping by!
For more on Rachel and her books, check out her website here.
And you can read an excerpt from Black Dog here.