By Shannon Page
When I first decided, fifteen-plus years ago, to write about the adventures of a young witch in San Francisco, I gave basically zero thought to worldbuilding. I hardly even knew what the phrase meant—I was a very novice writer. I had been a devoted reader all my life, but that’s…not really sufficient.
The first draft of what, many years and hundreds of thousands of words later, became book one of my Nightcraft Quartet could best be described as “Bewitched fanfic, but sexier.” An early critique group called it “witchlit.” Callie, my witch, floated through her days (sometimes literally), juggling boyfriends, drinking with her pals, and doing magic whenever she felt too lazy to exert real muscles. There was no rhyme or reason to any of it.
Thank the Blessed Mother for that crit group—and the one after that, and all the generous editors and readers after that. Because they all told me, in one way or another, Cute characters, fun story, but you really need to work on your worldbuilding.
I did know at least one thing about my world: the magic in it is secret, hidden from humans. Witchkind lives amid-but-apart; passing as human when needed, but otherwise making their own society, their own culture.
I have always been drawn to the idea that this world right here contains unseen mysteries. Unsuspected dimensions just beneath the surface. Milo in The Phantom Tollbooth; the Narnia Chronicles—these were books I returned to over and over in my childhood, and this was the sort of world I sought to create: the San Francisco I lived in, plus magic.
My first stabs at creating a magical system that made any logical sense only pointed out how woefully I had thought any of this through. For example: mind-reading. Powerful witches and warlocks ought to be able to read minds, right? Sure! Okay, but…then nobody can keep a secret from anyone else, ever, so there goes every plot point that hinges on deception, miscommunication, or withholding information or feelings—all the things that make character interactions interesting.
Or, you know, conflict. If everyone can cast powerful spells without any cost, then you’re quickly left with a story that reads like, “I throw Super Death at you!” “Oh yeah, well I deflect with my Super Death Shield and throw Extra Super Death Plus at you!”
Magic should have a cost, and actions should have consequences. This seems simple enough…until you start trying to write novels exploring these consequences.
It was several years into my own writing path before I started to really work out why my world contains so many more witches than warlocks—beyond just that “witches wanted it that way”—and what that means for their society. Or what happens when folks have a life expectancy of several centuries on this plane, plus more in the Beyond (and beyond that). It was clear to me that a forty-five-year-old witch would be viewed as a total youngster; what was less obvious was that domestic arrangements would look different than the ones mere humans come up with, as well as career choices, legal contracts, even hobbies and pastimes.
Every thread I pulled led to more threads. With every question answered, more questions popped up in its wake.
Trouble is, when I write, I begin with the characters—their emotions, quirks, personalities—and then, after that, their situations and challenges. Callie, Logan, Raymond, Niad, Jeremy, Leonora, Gregorio: these people have always been very clear to me, even from my earliest drafts.
What each of them can or can’t do, and why, and how that all unfolds and ripples outward? Much less clear.
Many writers find worldbuilding the most fun part of the process. I know people who can spend months or more working out details of planetary orbits and weather and geography and economics and civilizations and everything, before even writing a word of “the story.”
Me, I just want to jump in, toss the characters out there and see what they do. Which is why my original opening scene of this Quartet had Callie rolling her eyes at her annoying coven sisters when they floated through the wall of her apartment to pester her because…because they were annoying coven sisters. And she responded to this by doubling down on her efforts to stop using her magic and blend in more with humans because…because no reason at all?
Happily, I spent a long time writing that way—long enough to really enjoy the process—before learning that I’d only done half the work. I had so much fun parading Callie through her adventures, back when I was writing all alone.
I was, essentially, playing dolls with my characters.
And when, eventually, people started asking me the hard questions: But why would they…? What about…? How could they…? Well, I didn’t have answers.
Only after I started doing the work of worldbuilding did my dolls finally become people—with lives, in a culture produced by cogent history, and backstories that not only defined and explained who they were, what they felt and why they did things, but made those things inevitable.
I began to truly understand what is leading many of them—Callie first and foremost—to push for change. To interrogate the old traditions of her culture, rather than just mindlessly rebel against them; to determine which still serve witchkind and which just keep their society locked in place…for no reason at all.
This illuminated not just my characters, but their histories and motivations. It revealed why I felt drawn to write about these witches and warlocks in the first place.
Worldbuilding showed me what my story is about, by showing me what their stories were about. While you’ll get glimpses of this larger picture in A Sword in The Sun, you will have to wait ’til book four to see it all played out. But trust me. It’ll be worth it.
Shannon Page was born on Halloween night and spent her early years on a back-to-the-land commune in northern California. A childhood without television gave her a great love of the written word. At seven, she wrote her first book, an illustrated adventure starring her cat Cleo.
Sadly, that story is out of print, but her work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Interzone, Fantasy, Black Static, Tor.com, the Proceedings of the 2002 International Oral History Association Congress, and many anthologies, including the Australian Shadows Award-winning Grants Pass, and The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk. She also regularly publishes articles and personal essays on Medium.com, including the widely read “I Was a Trophy Wife.” She also regularly publishes articles and personal essays on Medium.com, including the widely read “I Was a Trophy Wife.”
Books include The Queen and The Tower and A Sword in The Sun, the first two books in The Nightcraft Quartet; Eel River; the collection Eastlick and Other Stories; Orcas Intrigue, Orcas Intruder, and Orcas Investigation, the first three books in the cozy mystery series The Chameleon Chronicles, in collaborationwith Karen G. Berry under the pen name Laura Gayle; and Our Lady of the Islands, co-written with the late Jay Lake. Our Lady received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, was named one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2014, and was a finalist for the Endeavour Award. Forthcoming books include Nightcraft books three and four; a sequel to Our Lady;and more Orcas mysteries. Edited books include the anthology Witches, Stitches & Bitches and the essay collection The Usual Path to Publication.
Shannon is a longtime yoga practitioner, has no tattoos (but she did recently get a television), and lives on lovely, remote Orcas Island, Washington, with her husband, author and illustrator Mark Ferrari. Visit her at www.shannonpage.net.