It’s long been argued that all fictional characters contain some facet of the author—to what extent remains a debate—but what about setting? After all, in fantasy and science fiction, the where can be more important than the who or the what. Who is Robb Stark without the cold north of Westeros? Or Katniss Everdeen without Panem and the Hunger Games arena? But does that mean that without living through a Chicago winter, George R.R. Martin couldn’t have envisioned the lands beyond the Wall? Of course not. Yet it’s interesting that he has attributed the creation of his Wall to a trip to Hadrian’s Wall in England. His version is just a bit larger and colder.
I have also hiked along Hadrian’s Wall. In fact, I have hiked it from start to finish—all 84 miles of it—and believe me, there is no end to the amount of stories to be found there. From the amazing views to the castles and fortresses, every mile is ripe with details fit for a story.
And I think that is where an author creates a setting. It’s by taking details of places they know and adjusting them to create something new. Whether it’s from something they’ve seen, watched, or read about, every scrap becomes a thread that can be rewoven into a new tapestry. Or to extend the common forest and tree metaphor, creating setting is like taking the trees you know and rearranging them into a forest of wonder that no one has ever beheld.
Garrett Calcaterra, author of the novel, Dreamwielder, has never lived in a labyrinth of ice caves, but he drew upon his experiences hiking around Lake Chelan, in the Cascades, and around Scotland. As he explains, “I got to experience Edinburgh and do a little spelunking in search of Sawney Beane’s secret lair. These experiences melded together with images I’d seen in documentaries about cliff dwelling indigenous tribes and the earth-shaping powers of glaciers. I came up with this sprawling ice cavern [for Dreamwielder] where an ancient race of humans built a city into the living rocks of the mountain and lived beneath the azure hue of the glacier above them.”
“The Dream Thief of Kuthahaar,” my story in the October issue of Bards & Sages Quarterly, grew in the telling, as the saying goes. Only in this case, the telling was of another story altogether, my first in the setting of the Immortal City of Kuthahaar, “The Kultar’s Lost Hand.” For that story I created a place with palaces and bazaars, a congested city teeming with guilds and a harsh ruling class, where the dregs of society found solace only below ground, in deep caverns the rich considered fit only for the dead.
But why Sultans and robes and sandals? Why not trousers and frock coats and timber-framed lodges? I didn’t set out to write an “Arabian themed” tale. In fact, I don’t consider the story Arabian at all. The idea for the story spawned from a movie I grew up with, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Yes, that one. Laugh or groan all you like, I was fourteen and it was the coolest thing ever, next to Willow. And it was the scene at the start of the film, where the thief has his hand lopped off that left an impression with me and started the story. I wondered: what did the man do afterward? Did all society shun him? Had he been a villain before? Or had he been respected, maybe even someone of importance? So the man grew a back story and a personality, and all the time the dwellings and clothes and scents and sounds around him stuck in shades of sandstone, with oils and incense covering the stench created by a glaring sun and too many poor toiling in crowded streets.
It wasn’t difficult to fill in the details. A trip to the local farmer’s market may not yield the same foods, but the feeling of congestion is the same. There are any number of candle and incense shops out there, and as for the desert, Southern California is a great stand in for hot and dry! And so each scene was filled in as I needed it, with details summoned from a wide range of memories. I just needed to pick and place them in a context that made sense for this new society.
As the details were drawn in, other stories sprouted from the nooks and crannies. “The Dream Thief of Kuthahaar,” began as I started to wonder who these Seers were who watched the city (a group of sorcerers mentioned briefly in the first story.) They worked for the Sultan, but how did he win their loyalty? If they had such power, why did they not use it for their own aims? As I wondered, not only did new characters spring up, but new parts of the city as well. A temple, parts of the Sultan’s palace, the lands about the city, all became a part of the setting as young Akil, the protagonist, wandered toward his destiny.
Other stories followed full of assassins and heroines, desperate men and cunning scoundrels. Hopefully, many more will come. All will be a fabrication, holding the merest slices of the author, scrambled and contorted, fried and blended, until the place exists only in the imagination.
For those interested, here is a link to the Hadrian’s Wall National Trail site: http://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/HadriansWall/index.asp.
You can read “The Kultar’s Lost Hand” for free here.