MYC – Two Approaches to Fantasy World Building

  Master Your CraftWelcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series with Welcome to World Building. Today we continue to examine the humongous topic by looking at two approaches to fantasy world building.

When Gabby & I started talking fantasy world building, we figured out quickly that, while we agreed that character is central to world building, we approached the actual process very differently. Instead of trying to come up with *the* way to build fantasy worlds, we decided to share our different approaches in hopes that you can use some of our techniques in your own writing.

Julie’s Approach:

The first thing I do after I get an idea for a new world is read every comp title I can get my hands on so I know what the tropes are and can either avoid or subvert. Our Writing Cross-Culturally workshop round-up is a mini-course in how to avoid harmful tropes in world building. But I also check the genre tropes section of the TV Tropes Wiki to make sure I’m going into my world building with a good idea of what’s already out there.

Then comes the fun part–brainstorming. I brainstorm both how my story is different from what’s out there AND how it’s the same. This step often happens as part of my messy synopsis so that I can get feedback on the world from my amazing critique partners.

“Every story has already been told. Once you’ve read Anna Karenina, Bleak House, The Sound and the Fury, To Kill a Mockingbird and A Wrinkle in Time, you understand that there is really no reason to ever write another novel. Except that each writer brings to the table, if she will let herself, something that no one else in the history of time has ever had. –Anna Quindlen, Commencement Speech; Mount Holyoke College, May 23, 1999

Then I dive in to primary research. For a mythology-based world (which many of mine are), I read the original epic poems or stories looking for themes. I often take something from the original that I find sexist or racist or otherwise irritating and subvert it in my story. China Mieville’s brilliant UnLunDun is a great example of subverting the typical Chosen One trope, for example, because the Chosen One doesn’t actually end up saving the day.

I also love fantasy world building that includes unexpected mash-ups. Finnish epic poems meet Star Wars. Ugly Duckling plus dragons. Goonies plus sea turtles. Building a world at the intersection of two things you love can give lots of room for creativity and help you bring that something special that Anna Quindlen is talking about in the quote above.

But that’s all pre-writing. What does the actual writing look like? You already learned last week that the ten-page info dump is a no-no and that it’s best to weave in details during scenes with forward action. Probably my most-used world building comment to my clients is: BE SPECIFIC. A platter of meat on the table is so much less evocative then roasted hell-boar basted with clarion berry jam. Even better if the main character’s father was gravely injured on a hell-boar hunt years ago or if the seeking out the clarion berries is a right-of-passage that the main character hopes to participate in soon. Then the details become a way to build character, foreshadowing what is to come, recall backstory, and, ultimately, make the world you’re creating on the page come to life.

The Girl From Everywhere has amazing fantasy world buildingSome recent books that have really vivid fantasy world building include A Curious Tale of the In-Between by Lauren DeStefano, The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, and Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo.


Gabby’s Approach:

I always do character interviews and development first. Then I do a sort-of world interview. At this point, I may have a general plot outline, but I know that as I develop details of the world, it will impact plot and character, and vice versa. There’s triangulation that happens between the three that takes on a life of its own. To build the world, I have a series of questions, some of which I’ve come up with myself, and others which I’ve gleaned from friends, the internet, and workshops.

I have a strong background in environmental science, so I always include details about the weather, the geology, the seasons, and the flora and fauna in my world building. These have impacts on the lives of my characters. For example, I might explore the variety of predators in this world. Is it a creature that might attack my character? Do they travel in packs, like coyotes? Will my character have lingering anxiety that it might eat her cat? I explore food sources. Are there plants that are harvested, or animals that are farmed–what are they and how are they made available?

I go for LOTS of details–everything from the culture and general beliefs or taboos of a world, to the ecosystem, to the clothing and housing. I’d say I might use about a third of this information in the book. If you’re not sure why these sorts of details might be key ingredients, just look at the role of the poisonous berries in The Hunger Games. Whether or not a character would know those berries isn’t just about the world–it’s about the way the character interacts with their world.

To me there are some details that are more emotional and evocative than others, because they’re universal heart-lines. In my mind those are housing, weather, food, and religion/mythology. These three areas inform all of the best, and most emotional parts of our lives. We share food with family (unless we don’t have one, and then we eat alone). We remember our mother’s cooking, the smells and tastes of our childhood. We believe what we’re taught, or we strain against it. A well built world exerts pressure on a character, and can exert opposing pressure in their relationships. A rainy day, with its scent of wet earth, and heavy sky might mean, and evoke, something very different for me, than it does for you.

I research as needed, as I go. Examples might be anything really: tie-ins to an existing creature or mythology, symptoms of respiratory disease, how to cook a hell-boar (nod to Julie), or I may want to know about the dragonfly life cycle to adapt it for a creature of my own. I don’t really start to think about tropes, cliches or sensitivity reading until I’ve got something pretty developed, unless I notice something that gives me pause along the way.

In terms of implementation of the world, I second Julie. SPECIFICS. Really what this is about is that you don’t find the emotional, evocative ties that bind in broad strokes. Painting the world (relaying all the work you just did) feels–well, it doesn’t feel at all. What touches the reader and ties them to your character, and to your world, is the relationship between that character and the world–it’s in the MICRO. It’s in the details. It’s in the freezing cold wind that your character is going to have to go out in to get their sister. It’s in the smell of that dessert, made with special berries that only come out once a year. It’s in the sad lonely song, sung by a man with no ear for music, that everyone knows, but hasn’t heard in years because it was outlawed. The rocks under your feet impact you. They bruise your skin. All of these things are about the world, as interpreted by the character.

Three Times Lucky has amazing fantasy world building Some books that do fantasy world building  really well are: Three Times Lucky, A Year Down Yonder, Icefall, Howl’s Moving Castle, Savvy, and Scorpio Races.

Tune in next week when we will explore world building in science fiction.

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10 Great Books for the Young Readers on Your List

Here are ten books for Middle Grade readers (9 to 12) I enjoyed reading this year. Maybe you’ll find something for the special readers on your holiday gift list.51s7thphe8l-_ac_us240_ql65_

Nancy Cavanaugh’s THIS JOURNAL BELONGS TO RATCHET is the story of a lonely girl with a gift for auto mechanics, her tree-hugging granola-head father, and how she finds real friends.

89716Gennifer Choldenko’s AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS is the story of a boy whose family moves to the famous prison island, Alcatraz, and the warden’s daughter’s money-making schemes and an unlikely friendship between a girl with a leaning towards autism and the world’s most famous criminal. For more about this book, listen to the Book Club for Kids podcast.

8112318Wendy Maas’ THE CANDYMAKERS was recommended to me by my youngest a year or so ago. This story of a candymaking competition is told by each contestant in turn. Their stories don’t always agree. And that’s what makes the mystery.


7793985Shutta Crum’s THOMAS AND THE DRAGON QUEEN starts off like a classic quest of a very young wannabe knight. The tone is gentle and warm and you might be mistaken by the cover into thinking this is a book for younger middle grade readers only. There’s a really nice twist as a reward.

SPOILER ALERT: If you have a sensitive reader, check out the battle scene yourself first. The story is worth it.

10508431Jessica Day George’s TUESDAYS AT THE CASTLE is a warm book about a family and the castle that loves them. I noticed that the current cover on Amazon makes it look much “girlier” than it is. Celie is a princess, but she’s also a mapmaker who saves the day. This is the first book in a series.

SPOILER ALERT: Sensitive readers may be concerned that the story will get too dark after Chapter 3, but the book keeps it’s younger middle grade tone, so take courage and read on! 🙂

12969596Caitlen Rubino-Bradway’s ORDINARY MAGIC is a bit like Harry Potter upside down because it’s the ordinary kids who are sent away to school, not the magical ones.

SPOILER ALERT: Sensitive readers might not be crazy about the goblins.


22402972Lynda Mulally Hunt’s FISH IN A TREE was one of my absolute favorite books this year. Artistic Ally has a secret worry but her terrific teacher, Mr. Daniels, gives her hope. This is a heart-warming story about making friends, finding your place in your class, and finding out what it means to be smart.

28110852Kelly Barnhill’s THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON is a story for readers who like to fall completely into a story. The world feels so rich and the relationships between the family members are so warm. Magical.

SPOILER ALERT: There’s a scene with paper birds that might be challenging for sensitive readers.

19500357Lynne Rae Perkins’ NUTS TO YOU stars a cast of squirrels that talk exactly the way you would expect squirrels to talk. They’re worried about the forest and they’ve got a bit of attitude. Fun!



17731927Ally Condie’s SUMMERLOST is as beautiful as its cover. A story about overcoming grief that’s focused on hope and a Shakespeare summer festival and a new special friend.

Read more about SUMMERLOST in my Goodreads review.


Want even more? Download The Winged Pen’s 2016 List of Great Book Gifts for Classroom Libraries here.

These are the same books we’ve been sharing on Twitter during December–– all on one list for your shopping convenience.

Did you find something to try? Or do you have other suggestions for middle grade readers? Feel free to comment below.

The Winged Pen is taking a break for the holidays and will return early 2017 with an exciting new development. See you then!


IMG_4373HighResHeadshotLDLAUREL DECHER writes stories about all things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include “Stretchy the Leech” and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. She’s famous for getting lost, but carries maps because people always ask her for directions. You can read THE WOUNDED BOOK, her adventure story for young readers on Wattpad. Or find her on Twitter and her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany. She’s still a Vermonter and an epidemiologist at heart. PSA: Eat more kale! 🙂 Her short fiction for adults, UNFORESEEN TIMES, originally appeared in Windhover.






















Book Review: The Girl Who Drank The Moon by Kelly Barnhill

Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 9.46.28 PMPrepare to be enmagicked!

It happened to me before I even read Kelly Barnhill’s THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON. When I saw the enchanting cover art so many months ago, I knew the book would have to be mine. It called me. And then I won an ARC from Goodreads, like it was my destiny.

It arrived the day I got back from vacation. I opened the cover, and it swallowed me whole.


It will happen to you too. You are powerless to resist Luna’s story. Stripped from her mother’s hands by the Protectorate and left in the woods as a mere babe. Nurtured by an elder witch, Xan, who accidently lets her drink the moonlight. Moonlight filled with magic.

Luna can’t be left with a good family nearby like the other abandoned babies that Xan has rescued. Her magic makes that too risky. Luna is raised by the witch, a teeny tiny dragon who thinks he’s a Simply Enormous Dragon living in a land of giants, and a swamp monster who writes lovely poetry. To keep Luna safe from her own power, Xan locks the magic inside Luna. It emerges on schedule as she approaches her 13th birthday.

Just. In. Time.

Just in time because things are changing in the safe, magical woods of Luna’s childhood. Dangerous changes. Luna must unlock her magic to protect those who have protected her.

THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON is filled with deeply drawn characters: sinister, daring, enchanting, and endearing. A thickly satisfying plot, threaded with magic and love and millions of paper birds, makes it an unforgettable read.

Sigh. I wish I could read it all over again for the first time.

But don’t just listen to me, because remember I’m under Kelly Barnhill’s spell. Check out these starred reviews!

“Rich with multiple plot lines that culminate in a suspenseful climax, characters of inspiring integrity (as well as characters without any), a world with elements of both whimsy and treachery, and prose that melds into poetry. A sure bet for anyone who enjoys a truly fantastic story.  ”
– Booklist, starred review

“Guaranteed to enchant, enthrall, and enmagick.”
– Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“Captivating… Barnhill delivers an escalating plot filled with foreshadowing, well-developed characters, and a fully realized setting, all highlighting her lyrical storytelling.”
– Publishers Weekly, starred review

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THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON is available for pre-order

and releases on August 9th!

Goodreads  |  Amazon  | Barnes & Noble  | IndieBound | Algonquin YR

To read an excerpt from THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON, click here.

To read Kelly Barnhill‘s beautiful prequel to THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON, click here for part one and here for part two.

Check out our INTERVIEW with Kelly Barnhill about THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON!

And always remember…

You are ever so much more than you realize.  —Kelly Barnhill, THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON, chapter 28

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IMG_2370MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT will be published in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME releasing August 2017. Connect with her on Twitter.