Sunday, November 8, 2015

Making Folklore from Scratch: Worldbuilding and THE WRINKLED CROWN, by Anne Nesbet

Trumpets! Fanfares! Jumping up and down!
Why all the hullabaloo? Because my new novel for kids comes out this week! It's a fantasy called The Wrinkled Crown, about a girl named Linny who breaks an ancient law, gets her best friend into terrible trouble, and then must travel to the ends of her world to try to set things right.

My first two books (The Cabinet of Earths and A Box of Gargoyles) were both set in the magical old city of Paris, a place that really exists. Of course I added bits and pieces, but the real Paris provided all sorts of wonderful material.

The Wrinkled Crown, however, is set in an entirely made-up universe, and over the last few years I have learned that this process we call "worldbuilding" is a little like building a half-organic, half-mechanical onion from the inside out, layer after complicated layer. There's a lot more to it than simply figuring out where the mountains and rivers go, though in Linny's small but weird universe--a world divided into "wrinkled" and "Plain" regions--both mountains and rivers present some real challenges. In my computer case I still carry around a shopworn sketch I made of her world, "both the mappable and unmappable halves." 
A map of an unmappable place! That's enough to make paradox-loving me as happy as a dry-water clam.

But worldbuilding goes way beyond topography. You also have to build up the culture(s) of the people who live in that world. Linny is born into a village way up high in the wrinkled hills, where magic is everywhere, stories have a somewhat disquieting way of coming true, and music is all-important. In her village, boys are apprenticed to experts to learn the art of making the lourka, a stringed instrument unique to Linny's world. Girls, however, are strictly forbidden even to touch a lourka. This is a big problem for Linny, who is born "hummy" and can't be kept from music . . . .

At a relatively early stage in the worldbuilding process, I did a lot of research into instrument making. A friendly local luthier (Joan Balter!) gave me some tips, and then said, "Here's the book we all read at some point!"--and lent me an ancient, crumbling, nineteenth-century tome with an appropriately tome-like title: Violin-Making, As It Was and Is: Being a Historical, Theoretical, and Practical Treatise on the Science and Art of Violin-Making for the Use of Violin Makers and Players, Amateur and Professional (by Edward Heron-Allen, in the 1880s).
From this book I learned about choosing the best trees (maple and pine, preferably from the south side of the forest: "Maple" and "Pine" became the formal names of Linny's twin brothers, though everyone calls them "Maybe" and "Pie"), how long to store the wood (preferably cut in wedges) so that it can cure (for several years), and what sorts of ingredients to put into the varnish (including linseed oil, pressed from the seeds of a plant with small five-petalled flowers: Linny decorates her lourka with one of these "linny flowers").

I made a checklist of such details in order to sneak them into the story wherever I could. And then I moved to the next layer of the worldbuilding onion: what would the folklore of such a place be like? What sayings and proverbs would people use in a place so soaked in music and magic?
Here are some of the sayings I came up with--and really, I think they're so handy and helpful that I encourage us all to use them in our everyday life in THIS world! I mean: why not? :)

1. "Not until the feather scorches!"
Meaning: Wait until the right moment to leap, escape, or otherwise make your next move.
Source: Varnish making. Feathers were used to test the temperature of the linseed oil before you added other key ingredients.
A moment from The Wrinkled Crown: "Varnishes can't be hastened, Linny knew from sad experience. If you got impatient and added the juniper gum to the kettle before the linseed oil was really, truly burning hot, unusable glop would be the result.
            Any child of Lourka had heard the expression a million times: 'Not until the feather scorches.'
            Linny sat tight.
            Hang on, hang on, she told herself."
Possible use in our world: Good for muttering to oneself while waiting for the best possible moment to leap into a heated discussion--speak too soon, and the discussion may not yet be quite ready for the addition of your fine ideas. Wait until the feather scorches!

2. "Don't go varnishing flies!"
Meaning: Don't let any little daily unpleasantnesses between you and your loved ones stick around in a permanent way.
Source: Varnish making, again. Lourkas (like some violins) require as many as fifteen coats of varnish. As Linny's father explains, "Got to pick out any dust or little critters stuck there before the next coat goes on. Otherwise you're just varnishing flies, see?"
A moment from The Wrinkled Crown: "'Ah,' said her father. 'And you two went home all quarreled up, letting some little thing fester. That's varnishing flies, Linny, and you oughtn't do it.'"
Possible use in our world: A useful New Year's Resolution, for sure: to dig out the little dings gumming up our friendships before they've set themselves in stone, to do all we can not to go varnishing flies.

3. "Strings and sausages!"
Meaning: The making of lovely things (strings, sausages, and books, for example) can be rather messy and disgusting, when examined closely.
Source: The production of gut strings and sausages, two processes any child raised in the village of Lourka would know something about.
A moment from The Wrinkled Crown: "'It's all strings and sausages around here, have you noticed?' Linny said to the cat. It was a saying from home, used for things that are good and pleasant in themselves, but you don't want to think too much about how they're made. 'You don't know where lourka strings come from--well, never mind.'
            That lovely jam and those lovely eggs, paid for by the magician's awful weapons! It made her determined, all over again, to find her way out of this house."
Possible use in our world: "Wow, how calm you always seem, Elizabeth, as you raise your two sets of triplets and publish that weekly column on meditation practices!"
            "Ha! Well! If only you knew: It's all strings and sausages, strings and sausages!"

What expressions from fictional worlds do you find yourself using, in your everyday life?

(I, for instance, still say "going tharn" about freezing in the face of something scary or overwhelming: a phrase I picked up from Watership Down, by Richard Adams.)


  1. I can't wait to read this book! Am fascinated by the world-building. I'm working on a YA right now that requires some for only a few chapters and it's kicking my butt, so you are really inspiring me!

    1. It's hard work, building worlds! Throw in some surprises for yourself, maybe? Some little detail about your world you wouldn't expect to hear? Good luck!

  2. So much here I love, but first of all CONGRATS!

    I'm curious about your world-building phase, if you ever feel antsy to begin. I know with my historical fiction research I know I'm laying necessary groundwork, but when I'm at the point of transitioning to the story, I feel anxious, like I need to get going. Having just read Elizabeth Gilbert's BIG MAGIC, I'm trying to adopt the idea of "creating" instead of "writing" at those phases (because, unfortunately, "writing" has somehow come to equate "producing" in my mind). I'm hoping this frees me up some.

    I love your clever expressions and love that you use "going tharn" in the real world! I had a school visit last week connected to the frontier, and one of the things I do is present some frontier slang. It's fun to share with kids that girls who wanted to break up with their boyfriends would "give him the mitten," that arguing was "ding-donging," and someone might be "mad enough to swallow a horned toad backward."

    All best this week!

    1. Hi Caroline! As an inveterate researcher, I know the worry about research and world building becoming an infinite rabbit hole. On the other hand, it's SUCH a wonderful rabbit hole, that honestly, I don't mind living there much of the time.

      I like the "creating" vs. "writing" shift--lots of people have been recommending BIG MAGIC, so maybe I should start listening to them!

      And I'll see if I can get "giving him the mitten" into usage around here. :)

  3. Yes, CONGRATULATIONS! I love these new additions to my lexicon. I will surely be adding "strings and sausages" to my phraseology.

    1. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Michael! I know you know how much like "strings and sausages" book-writing and family-rearing both can be!

  4. Congrats, Anne, on the release of The Wrinkled Crown!!

    I love this description of world building: "worldbuilding is a little like building a half-organic, half-mechanical onion from the inside out, layer after complicated layer"

    1. Thanks, Paul! I guess I should have added . . . "and slicing into that onion can make a writer cry" . . . . :)

  5. Excellent thoughts on world-building. I love your expressions. And I can't wait for this book.

    1. And Kell, you are certainly someone who knows all about building worlds! Thank you for your kind words here. (And just by the way, everyone, Kell's DEADWOOD is available in e-form for only $2.99!) :)

  6. Anne, super congratulations!! I adore this cover too. And I love the lingo you created in the book. I did the same with my upcoming book Joshua and the Arrow Realm by creating lingo within a subculture. And I hope it's all 'strings and sausages' right now with the book release!

    1. Well, now I am very eager to see Joshua and the Arrow Realm! What subculture were you creating lingo for? Everything in my life is strings and sausages, that is undeniably true: hoping the products are sonorous and/or tasty, but OH THE MESSINESS of the process!

  7. Few people could write this book, and you were the one to do it. This is a magnificent addition to young readers literature.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!