By D. W. Vogel
Sci-fi and fantasy writers live for worldbuilding. We love to spend hours, days, months, years planning out every facet of the settings for our novels. Will there be magic? Monsters? Spacecraft or sailing ships? It’s important to know our worlds inside and out before we start putting words to page, or we end up backtracking, endlessly fixing things that must change halfway through because the plot demands it. Does everyone live on islands that float in the sky? Great! How do they move between them? Flying dragons? Flying cars? Jetpacks or wings? It’s all part of the joy of creating a world for our characters to live in, and for our plots to take shape.
So why, when Outland Entertainment asked me to write a novel set in the existing world of Nicolas Giacondino’s comic Nightfell, did I ever say yes?
Working in someone else’s world changes so much about the process. As a writer, I’m bound by existing canon (and trust me, fans know their canon). I can’t go in and add flying dragons to a world that’s never had them before, just because I happen to like flying dragons. What’s already been written is the law, and my job is to find a new story to tell within the ropes of the existing lore.
I’ve done this before. Several years ago I was honored to be asked to write a novel set in the board game world of Super Dungeon, called The Forgotten King. That novel had the added challenge of being book two in a series of five, each one following a different main character on their own part of a shared quest. I had to keep pace with four other authors, all of us living in a shared world, all writing our novels at the same time. I learned so much from that experience about the unexpected fun of writing like a pro wrestler, bouncing off the ropes, climbing up and jumping but always staying inside that square. Nobody hit anybody else with chairs, and in the end, the title belt was shared.
One novel for Nightfell? Just me alone with the source material, and no other authors to be mindful of?
Heck, yeah, I was in.
Enter Nicolás R. Giacondino.
Nightfell is his graphic novel world. His baby. His trippy nightmare planet of giant insect monsters that live underground during ninety years of light. There they wait for the decade of darkness when they rampage through everything the humans built on the surface during those ninety years, when the eyes of the Atamonen gods shone down upon them without end.
Puny humans with their soft skin and brittle bones stand no chance in the years of Nightfell. If only they had a secret weapon–something stronger than an ordinary human that could stand up to the monsters of the dark.
Lucky for them, such a weapon exists. When night falls, the dead rise. Carefully preserved through the ages by skilled embalmers, the Risen wake at Nightfell to protect the world of the living. Impervious to pain, stronger than any live human, they rise from the catacombs to give the last of themselves, fighting the creatures that would destroy humankind.
That’s the world Nicolás gave me to write in. He trusted me with his baby, and I set to work.
Where do you begin to write a novel in an existing world? Where do you find a story to tell that isn’t just a retelling of what’s already out there?
And in the case of Nightfell, how do you say enough without saying too much? Comics are never finished. Their stories are never over. They go on forever, so the idea of writing a sequel to the existing graphic novel was never an option for me.
I thought about what I wanted to write, what story needed to be told. Poring over the existing comic, I found something that intrigued me.
When the heroes of the graphic novel need an army to fight on their side, they find an old map that leads them to an ancient legion of soldiers buried in the ice, far from any existing city. The Lost Legion has been a legend for generations, just waiting for the Nightfell when someone finds them and awakens them to battle.
This was my story.
But I didn’t want to write about soldiers. I know my strengths, and a group of doomed soldiers didn’t spark the deeper heart I wanted to put into this book. I needed to tell their story, but I wanted to come at it from the side, or from above, or underneath. They are the result of the story, but they’re not the plot of The Risen. So whose story is it?
Dolen called to me from his home in the mountains. His wife Rayli is dying in childbirth, and he must find a healer to save her. I had the image of him slogging up the snow-covered mountains at the tail-end of Nightfell, leaving his ranch crewed by helpful undead ranch hands. Dolen will risk his life among the monsters to save his beloved and their child.
Sorreg is safe in her laboratory in Somteh, the cliffside city of science. A truce with the Beneathers has kept them safe through the decade of darkness, but the undead—the Risen—in Somteh are restless in the peace of the city; nearing revolution, they rebel against the loss of their personhood when they awaken with no monsters to fight. Sorreg’s latest scientific discovery will change the Risen forever.
And Rayli? She will learn that there are worse things than dying.
I had found my heroes, and with the blessing of Nicolás, I set to work, bringing their stories to life, entwining them in a prequel set hundreds of years before the Nightfell comic.
I hope I did them justice. I think this tale is worth telling.
So why do I write in other people’s worlds? Why not stick to my own sci-fi series where I’m in control of everything? I’ve found that I love the challenge, having those ropes to bounce off of, crafting a story that has to stay between lines of someone else’s creativity.
I’m thrilled to share The Risen with the world. I hope you’ll come into the darkness with Nicolas and me, to see the magic that blooms in the world with which I’ve been trusted. There are monsters. There is hope. There is magic and discovery, and in the end I hope you’ll agree, there is an adventure worth living—or Rising—to enjoy.
D.W. Vogel is a veterinarian, cancer survivor, marathon runner, board game developer, and speculative fiction author. Her science fiction Horizon Arc series is available from Future House Publishing, along with the game world fantasy, Super Dungeon: The Forgotten King. She is also the author of the feminist fantasy Flamewalker, and co-author of Five Minutes to Success: Master the Craft of Writing. Her short stories are available in many anthologies, and she is represented by Alice Speilburg Literary. You can find her online at Wendyvogelbooks.com. Nightfell: The Risen is now available in bookstores.