Which Came First
The chicken or the egg? The story or the world? Does the story you want to tell determine the setting, or does your chosen setting demand a certain kind of story to be told in it? Are there some types of stories that simply cannot be told in a particular setting? How do creators balance these seemingly opposing forces in imagining their tales?
Which has gotten me reflecting on that question and how I would answer it. Off the cuff, I thought I probably start more with the setting — hi, anthropology, yeah. But does that hold up when I actually look at the data?
(For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to keep this to novels, but I will include unpublished novels in the list. It’s probably a different ballgame if I look at short stories; that, however, would require more time than I want to devote to this right now, and a refresher course as to what the heck I’ve written.)
Lies and Prophecy — started with the very basic idea of “what if magic were so normal you could study it in college? So I invented some college students to study it, and because my default assumption was that magic showed up at puberty, Julian brought the wilder thing with him to complicate that. But I didn’t have a plot until I thought up the Samhain attack. So: setting first.
Doppelganger/Warrior — started with “doppelgangers” and “witches.” From that, I came up with the idea of the latter needing to kill the former. Somewhere in there, my nascent interest in Japan attached itself to the project; I’d just read The Book of the Five Rings, etc. So: story first.
The Kestori Hawks — Don’t recognize this one? That’s because you’ve never read it, and never will. It grew out of Robin Hood + Lawrence of Arabia and a couple of other things I’ve forgotten; basically, I wanted to write a Robin Hood story with a protagonist deeply messed up by war. One of the several failures of this book was that I stuck with too many default assumptions, so: setting and story together, because I took the whole Robin Hood package as a unit.
Sunlight and Storm — Also unpublished; needs a white-page rewrite to go anywhere. Came from that phrase, describing the Great Plains, and my love of the Western U.S., which suggested a frontier tale. That gave rise to a character who would flee “civilization” for the frontier. Clearly setting first.
The Vengeance of Trees — This one will get out there someday. Origin was my experience on the fringes of theatre + the book Shakespeare of London, which looks at him in the context of the London theatre scene; ergo it became a story about a playwright in a sort of Renaissance Italian culture. Again, setting first.
The Waking of Angantyr — Also may be published someday. Viking revenge epic, born from my disappointment that the saga which contains the poem of the same title was not as cool as the poem itself. Setting and story together, because it’s kind of a fix-it retelling.
Warrior and Witch/Witch — we’ll call this one story first, because it was the first sequel I ever wrote. While it takes place in the same setting, its foundation was the consequences of the plot in the first book, rather than a desire to explore more in the world.
Midnight Never Come — Really game first, but that isn’t an option here, so we’ll say story first. While the connection between Invidiana and Elizabeth was cool and setting-linked, what stuck in my brain like a fish-hook and made me decide to turn this into a book was the entire Suspiria/Francis Merriman tale.
My So-Called Perfect Life — working title for an unpublished YA that needs a major rewrite. It comes close to being “story first,” but I’m really going to say it’s character first, because the heart of it is a popular teenager who doesn’t realize her popularity is due to an unrecognized telepathic gift. The actual plot she gets embroiled in was stapled onto that character, and the book doesn’t quite work because the stapling isn’t very secure.
In Ashes Lie — I don’t how I should class this one. It started with the Great Fire and then grew backward from there, with me trying to find a good starting point in that historical period. I guess that’s story first?
A Star Shall Fall — Story first. I knew what I wanted to do with the Dragon (since it’s another piece pulled from that game), and had to educate myself about the time period to make that go.
With Fate Conspire — Also story first, though in this case the two are less extricable from one another. The genesis of it was thinking about what the construction of the Underground would do to the Onyx Hall, which is specific to a time period. But it was driven more by that plot idea than by the period itself.
A Natural History of Dragons — As I have said ad nauseam in interviews, the starting idea was a natural historian studying dragons. And while you could call that story first (with setting following closely on its heels), given that the whole Vystrana plot, not to mention the metaplot of the series, came well after, I think I have to tag this one as character first again.
Bonus unfinished ideas:
One project born out of the creepiest dream I’ve had in my entire life. Setting first, because the place I was trapped in is the core of the story.
One about the lead-up to the end of the world. Story first, because the setting is built around that concept.
One about holy female knights in a medieval-type period. Setting first, because the knights dictated I use the period when they were at their height.
One deconstructing the whole Chosen One epic fantasy thing. Very very much story first — the setting has barely even been developed — though really, I should just be honest and admit it’s “thematic argument first.”
One urban fantasy set in Japan, that can’t be separated very easily. I guess it’s setting first, since the core idea was a type of Japanese magic.
One that’s the Flying Dutchman + Pirates of the Caribbean + the Dread Pirate Roberts. Very much setting first; I’ve barely written anything of this because I haven’t yet figured out quite what I’m doing with the setting.
Final tally: seven for setting, seven-ish for story, two for character, and three that don’t classify easily (two that were both setting and story as a package, and one that was a thematic argument). It’s noteworthy that four of the seven counted as story-first are later books in a series. In one sense you would think sequels would be setting first, since the milieu is already fixed; but I’d argue they’re more likely to be story first, since the books I counted that way are born not from their world, but from me having another plot I wanted to explore. For contrast, I can offer up one I forgot to include in the list, namely the second of Isabella’s memoirs: that one came about via “okay, now I want her to go to a West African kind of place,” with the plot built around it. It’s a distinctly different trajectory for me than when the setting is just lying there, and I think up a plot.
Unsurprisingly, the prime failure mode for my projects appears to be when there’s a big lag time between those two components — one shows up without the other close behind. The end-of-the-world thing has a plot, but only vague sketches of a setting; ditto the epic fantasy one. The dream piece and the pirate one have cool settings, but I’m not quite sure where the story is going. All of those have been sitting around for years, going nowhere. Of the other unfinished projects — the lady knights and the Japanese one — both of those are just waiting for their moment, i.e. me to get a contract. I could write either in a heartbeat.
As for the novels that got written, but not well, I don’t think there’s a clear pattern, except that their disparate elements never came together like they should. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with their starting points.
<looks at the last two questions in the panel description> Nah, not gonna touch those. The answer to the first is “yes,” and the latter presupposes one agrees that setting and story are “opposing forces.” Ah, panel blurbs — you say the silliest things, even for good topics.