How do fantasy authors build the worlds that hook readers into their story and keep them there?
They must begin and end with wonder, writes best-selling author Amie Kaufman, whose latest novel, The World Between Blinks (co-written with Ryan Graudin), unfolds in a place where lost things are found.
The World Between Blinks started with a moment of wonder.
My literary agent shared an article on Facebook about an island that had temporarily formed off the coast of North Carolina. Tides and winds had conspired to create it, a few well-placed seeds had sprung to life, and there it was, populated with sharks’ teeth and whalebones and lonely gulls. I was entranced by this place that had come briefly into existence, and would soon be lost again.
Then an author friend, Ryan Graudin, added fuel to the fire. She told me about the Morris Island Light, a lighthouse that once stood on an island large enough to host a civil war battle. Over the years erosion slowly wore away the beach around it, and now it rises from the ocean, standing alone and guarding a land that’s no longer there.
And there it was – the wonder. The tingle down my spine.
The World Between Blinks is my 15th published novel, and these days I recognise that feeling when it arrives. I still don’t know how to provoke it, how to make lightning strike – I wish I did – but when it happens, I pay attention.
I know that ultimately, what draws you to your story is what will draw others in as well, so you mustn’t lose sight of it.
Bookshop shelves are wondrously, generously crowded with stories from all over the globe, offering the opportunity to slip out of our world and into another. If you’re going to hook your reader and lure them away from their lives to spend some time with you, then your world needs to stand out.
For me, that starts with wonder. With the moment that tells me this could be something special. Of course there’s craft involved, but we’re not short on well-crafted stories. What elevates a book is something that’s far harder to pin down.
On instinct, chasing the lightning strike I’d just felt, I asked Ryan if she wanted to write a book with me. She emailed back nine minutes later: YES.
Cue another shiver. We got to work creating our world.
Every book requires worldbuilding, whether it’s a fantasy kingdom, a gritty space station or a small, perfectly ordinary rural town. Move even from one suburb to another, let alone from one city to another, or from city to country, and a thousand small differences start to show up in speech, slang, meals, weather, in the rhythms of daily life. An author’s work is to pin them all down, then choose which few will immediately place the reader where we want them to be. Try creating a whole new world, and the job grows exponentially.
Together, Ryan and I built the magical world that lay beyond our lighthouse portal: a world where lost people and places from history can be found. A world where Amelia Earhart rubs shoulders with Queen Nefertiti, where the lost Roman markets of Ostia Antica sit alongside the Frost Fairs that took place hundreds of years ago on a frozen Thames. We learned about the smelling salts Amelia kept in her pocket on long flights, and Nefertiti’s preference for blue wigs, and we turned up lost ships and submarines, lost explorers, lost books and libraries. We found the little details that told our readers these people and places and the World Between Blinks itself were real.
All of it thrilled us. We’d send emails and text messages back and forth: “Did you know the Ninth Roman legion just vanished from all records in C.E. 120, and nobody knows why?”
Above all, at every stage, we stuck with our wonder. We chased the sparks that told us this story was special, and worked to capture the feeling that kept us reading under the covers as kids. Every part of our world had to delight us, and we used that sense of wonder as the north mark on our compass – we always worked toward it. And though I say it myself, what showed up was pretty special.
Because I’d love to tell you that the secret to building a world people will never forget is a six-step research process, or that there’s a special formula. But the truth is far more ephemeral: it begins and ends with wonder, and with a shiver down your spine.
Make sure you chase it, and your readers will feel it too.
Amie Kaufman is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author whose multi-award winning work for young adults (co-written with award-winning author Ryan Graudin) is slated for publication in over 30 countries. The Word Between Blinks is out now.
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