Once Upon A Time in Worldbuilding

Amongst the sweetest phrases I’ve ever heard from my mother’s lips are “I love you,” “I’ve made lemon meringue pie” (those two meaning, essentially, the same thing), and “Once upon a time.” All three still fill me with roughly the same degree of happiness, but I don’t hear that last one anymore. It’s not for lack of trying; I do keep asking.

“Tell me a story?”

“You’re forty-eight years old.”

“And you’re seventy-one, so tell me a story before you forget how!”

So far no luck. Come to think of it, the lemon meringues have been a bit thin on the ground, too. Hmmm.

Nevertheless, the thrill of “Once upon a time” never leaves me, never dims. It’s the story addict’s equivalent of a ringing bell and the response is equally Pavlovian. I know, when I hear those words, that I will be transported. That the room or train carriage or café or bus in which I’m sitting is about to disappear; I will be elsewhere. It might be familiar, a beloved territory visited over and again, or a place unexpectedly remade and strange. It can be as static as my memory chooses or as mutable, sometimes with just small details tweaked or enlarged, a colour shaded from pale pink to blood red, with snow-white sequins or wings as black as ebony added in for good measure.

The once-upon-a-time world is one I’m (mostly) in charge of, so when I decided to write it should have been the easiest thing on the planet to do the worldbuilding, right?

Apparently not.

Slatter-Jennings03All the years of being read to, and then reading myself, had laid down an entire universe (or series of them) in my messy mind. You’d think making up my own fairy tales would be a simple matter of checking the brain-shelves for tropes and motifs, then placing story brick upon story brick. Alas no. I tormented myself with ideas of how complex any ‘verse I created would have to be. There were many—oh, so many—false starts! with me trying to build layer on intricate layer of fantasy world. I made up too many rules, too many boundaries; I boxed myself and my story in. Nothing worked; failed attempts littered my life and my wastepaper bin.

But, in recent years while studying for an MA and a PhD, I became fascinated about the intersection between memory and fairy tales. About what those tales, which we’re told again and again, leave behind in the conscious and unconscious mind. About how there are triggers that get us into a certain way of thinking—for example, “Once upon a time.” About the kinds of communal knowledge that fairy tales (of no matter what culture) are designed to embed, whether it be warnings about wolves or demons or leaving paths or how to be a chosen girl who gets the prince. So, I thought, if there are breadcrumbs already there, all I need to do is suggest to the reader something that triggers those notions and ideas.

As I went back to the old tales, I realised how many versions there were of the same story, across time and continents and cultures—Cinderella started out as a story written by Strabo in the 1st Century BCE about a courtesan, Rhodopis, and later versions include Finette Cendrillon (France), Aschenputtel (Germany), Ye Xian (China), and Cenerentola (Italy). The thing they all share is this: they take place in our world or a recognisable version of it. They are partly bounded by the everyday, but what frees them and sets them apart is the idea (and acceptance of it by the reader) of a functioning magic system. All I had to do was work with what was there, rather than against it.

The fairy tale world offers a series of ‘set pieces’ that can be deployed to set a scene and a reader’s expectations, elaborated on to add depth and conviction, then tweaked to give the story its uniqueness. You want to pull a reader in and make them comfortable—give them the best chair, a mug of hot chocolate, and some gingerbread cookies fresh from the oven—before you tell them that said cookies are made of something dreadful and they, the reader, will soon turn into a frog. Make the world seem familiar first, then scare the pants off them; that order is very important.

Slatter-Jennings05The other thing I realised was this: each reader puts their own overlay on the top of my words, sees my descriptions in their own particular way due to what they bring the story. So there’s a meshing of what I’m tapping into as the teller of the tale, the ideas I’m suggesting, and the cultural capital to which are my readers heir. Not being a mind-reader, I can’t know precisely what each reader carries into the story, but I can do my level best to leave enough hints to hopefully trigger something in their brain, in their memories either conscious or otherwise.

The first fairy tale I wrote successfully—or rather re-wrote/re-worked/reloaded—was ‘The Little Match Girl’. Coincidentally, it’s the first tale I recall my mother reading to me; I know she read many others before and after, yet I remember this one because I found the ending so traumatic. I knew the tone I wanted, I knew how I wanted the protagonist to fit in the story. I wrote setting descriptors that suggested a timeless medieval world: villages and healers and a drowning pool. The main character wasn’t some helpless, victimised child; she became the granddaughter of a witch, however with no magical power of her own. Writing that story and succeeding with it taught me a lot, and the techniques I picked up were funnelled into future tales. I worked with elements of myth and history and fairy tales that interested me and I twisted them away from their traditional shape—for example, the idea of the shifters in Of Sorrow and Such comes from a bit of lore picked up over thirty years ago from Mildred Kirk’s The Everlasting Cat.

Eventually, I knew enough to put together Sourdough and Other Stories, which collected some previously published pieces (they’d been waiting patiently for me to grow up—they knew where they belonged), and a whole lot of new ones written quite specifically for that collection. I went on to expand the world in The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings, and it’s also where Of Sorrow and Such occurs. It’s a world more serious and dangerous than a fairy tale universe, there are ever-echoing consequences and even the happily-ever-afters have Monkey’s Paw elements. Here, enchantment is real, it is an everyday thing; in some places it’s embraced, in others it’s feared. Some girls are born witches, others are utterly untouched by eldritch power, like the novella’s Gilly who barely registers on the witch’s scale. Magic, small or large, white or black, has a cost, whether it be your blood, your love, an item of value, or a life, yours or another’s. It’s a casual thing to those blessed or cursed by it. Though in Edda’s Meadow it must be kept secret, Patience and Selke practise their sorcery with ease; it’s second nature to them and they know what they do works as it should—they’re not simply playing at witchcraft.

Slatter-Jennings04As for how it appears to me, the physical detail, the clutter? It’s a mash-up of my favourite clothing and jewellery, art and architecture, literature and food, leading figures and legends from different time periods—I get to Mix Up All The Things. I remember the first time I saw Neil Jordan’s film of Carter’s The Company of Wolves: it was as though the world of fairy tales in my head had leaked out. The look of the cottages and the forest, the costumes, etc, were very close to large parts of Sourdough. I must admit, however, that in my world there’s indoor plumbing. I can tell my friend and frequent illustrator, Kathleen Jennings, that a dress should look like a cross between a Victorian era housecoat and a seventeenth-century mantua; it will make her cry, but I know she’ll come back with just the right mashed-up thing. My cities and villages will, depending on the tone of the story, have elements of English, French, German, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, or Nordic architecture for extra flavour. In my head, Edda’s Meadow looks mostly like an eighteenth-century English town crossed with bits of a German Medieval town like Würzburg. No, I’m not crazy, you’re crazy. Anyway, it’s my sandbox.

I guess this means my worldbuilding is mimetic, creating a mirror image of our world before making it different; making a reader think they know how things work, then showing them that they really don’t. One of my favourite examples of this is, again, the The Company of Wolves film, where one of the tales finishes with scenes of a witch sitting on the highest branches of a pine tree (if I remember correctly), rocking her baby’s cradle while wolves sing a lullaby below. It’s such a perfect image, so rich: the very mundane sight of the mother sending her child to sleep, juxtaposed onto that strange and wild territory of treetops.

The world of Sourdough, Bitterwood, and Of Sorrow and Such has its feet firmly planted in the old fairy tales told to me long ago by my mother, those of the Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen. It’s a world supplemented over the years by my own reading of Angela Carter and Madame d’Aulnoy, Marina Warner and Marie Leprince de Beaumont, Emma Donoghue and Giambattista Basile, Margo Lanagan and Juliet Marillier, Tanith Lee and Straparola. There’s a really strong connection, in my fiction, between the worlds of the past and the present. Every time I re-imagine a fairy tale, every time I create a new piece of the Sourdough universe, I feel myself joined to a long line of tellers. I’m always aware that the old tales don’t die, they just transform, and I recall the line from Clive Barker’s Weaveworld, ‘That which is imagined need never be lost.’

Perhaps, if I imagine hard enough, it might just work with lemon meringue pie too.

Illustrations by Kathleen Jennings.
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Angela Slatter writes dark fantasy and horror. She is the author of the Aurealis Award-winning The Girl with No Hands and Other Tales, the WFA-shortlisted Sourdough and Other Stories, and the collection/mosaic novel (with Lisa L Hannett), The Female Factory. Her latest novella, Of Sorrow and Such, is available now from Tor.com.

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