Crafting a kingdom – Part 1: The Setting

I’ve been doing a lot of world building these past few weeks with my writing students. These are older students, so I’m really pushing them to think about and develop all of those little details that go towards creating unique and distinctive societies.

I can’t emphasize how important world building is to me. I spend months (and often years) on this aspect of writing! I’m amazed when people say to me (many of them writers): “Oh, you’re a fantasy writer. That’s easy. You just make it all up.”

My response? “Actually, writing fantasy is terribly difficult. Because you have to make it all up.”

When it comes to teaching world building to my students, I usually break it down into five key areas. In this post, I thought I would tackle the first of these areas: Setting. I believe you have to ask yourself these questions if you are writing any fictional story, but they particularly apply to fantasy writing. The key questions are:

Where is the world?

What are the borders and boundaries?

How do you get there (if you can)?

What are the important landmarks?

How are places named?

How does the setting effect the people? (For example, people who can fly don’t live under the sea!)

The number-one technique I encourage my students to use is mapping—not only of an entire world, but of specific locations. First of all, it can serve as brainstorming, helping you come up with details that you might not normally realize until you see it visualized on paper.

Here’s my rough map of the Land of Een, the central setting in my Kendra Kandlestar series:


When I show students this, they laugh. Of course, this wasn’t meant to be shown to anyone. It was meant just for me, so that I could get a feel of my own world. I ended up fleshing out this world even more, and did a final version that is included in the final books.



I have a little story for pretty much every town, grove, and corner in this world. While those stories are not a part of my actual published books, I like to think that by writing them they helped me create a well-rounded world.

Drawing a map can also help you plot out a journey (and thus give you ideas for complications). But, most importantly, I think it really helps the author gain a different perspective of an environment and helps us avoid major flaws in logic.

Last year, I was on a work trip with my colleague, author and editor Kallie George. She has a new series coming out with Disney/Hyperion about a magical animal adoption agency. The key location, of course, is the agency. But one of the comments she received from her editor while we were traveling was that the agency itself didn’t seem to make any logical sense. When Kallie reviewed her own manuscript, she realized that the way she wrote it actually had characters bumping into (or walking through) walls! Most readers wouldn’t discern such details, but, of course, these are the things an author should know top to bottom.

So Kallie sat down and I made some rough scribbles of the layout:


It doesn’t look like much! But it was a starting point. Afterwards, I made a more formalized diagram of the agency for Kallie. Here it is, with some of Kallie’s notes:


The above wasn’t the final version. We went through several iterations. And, of course, this diagram won’t be used in the final book—it was just to help Kallie get a sense of the physical space in her own setting so that she could realistically and accurately put it into words.

To end off this post, I thought I’d post the map that one of my students is working on. I adore her lettering!


Next post, I’ll talk about another important element of world building: Culture.

Meeting Jeff Kinney – creator of Diary of A Wimpy Kid


Wow! Last night Marcie and I went to the launch of the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid book, Hard Luck. I’ve never been to a book launch quite like this one! Author Jeff Kinney didn’t speak or present—he just signed, hour after hour. But he didn’t leave all his faithful fans to just fretfully stand in line. It was more like a carnival!

We first got a sense of what was happening when we approached the event site and saw a giant tour bus, all decked out with Wimpy Kid graphics. We should have taken a picture then, because by the time we left, the bus was gone. So we had to settle for photos of the Wimpy Kid van.



Inside, it was a zoo. There were apparently 800 tickets sold, but I’m sure there was at least a thousand people there. There were all sorts of carnival-style games for the kids to play, as well as a Photo Booth, a fortune teller station, and a DJ who rocked the joint the whole night. As the night wore on, and the kids started getting restless, the DJ started cranking the tunes and the floor turned into a mosh-pit of eight- to eleven-year-olds! I have to credit the crew; they started handing out free T-shirts to all the kids. When they ran out of shirts, the DJ gave the one off his back!



By the time we met Mr. Kinney, we had been there for about two-and-a-half hours. I couldn’t believe he could still function. He graciously signed our books and gave us a moment of chit-chat.


I was really impressed by everything and was pleased to experience this style of book launch. I had done something similar for my own last book launch (you can see the post and photos here), but of course I had only a hundred people or so at mine. Still, I think this is what a launch of children’s book should be all about—a raucous celebration filled with games and activities all based on the books.

So, here’s a big congratulations to Mr. Kinney and his team. You thrilled a lot of kids (and kids at heart) last night.

Together again

Here’s an illustration I completed recently of two fan favorites from the Kendra Kandlestar series: Kendra herself, and Trooogul the Unger. Many of the questions I seem to get from readers revolve around the relationship between these two characters. Are they friends? Are they enemies? Will they ever meet again?

Well, I guess this illustration from near the end of Kendra Kandlestar and the Search for Arazeen answers at least the last of those questions. Yes, they do meet each other . . . but only if the circumstances were different!


The mighty Jinx

Here’s an illustration I recently completed of fan-favourite, Juniper Jinx, for Kendra Kandelstar and the Search for Arazeen.

Ratchet is also an important part of this scene, so I might add his head poking out from behind the sack. The only problem is that he is SO much bigger than Jinx. And, well . . . sometimes simpler illustrations are better, depending on how the text looks on the page. (I tend to really consider the text as part of the overall artwork on any given spread.)


Crash test characters

This is a fun activity I’ve been using with my writing classes the past couple of weeks. It’s a way for my students to test the characters they have been developing for their long-term novel projects.


How it works is this: Each student chooses a main character from his or her book and develops a detailed profile. I often give a whole week for this, because the key is to force the students to really think about the character and to provide detailed descriptions (as opposed to quick ones, made to just fill up blanks on a worksheet).

But it’s actually okay if some students don’t complete this part of the project sincerely—because it all comes out in the crash test. Because what happens next is the students trade profiles so that now each of them has a different (and unfamiliar) character in front of them. They can’t interview the creator; all they can do is use the information on the sheet. Next, I set up the idea that each character has been plucked from its original story and transplanted into a new situation. This is a pre-configured scenario I’ve developed, rather like a “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” situation, one that demands that the characters react or make choices.

The students apply the character to the situation and write a short description of what happens. We then read out the resulting pieces and the creators get to see how their characters performed. They might agree with how the new author used the character—or they might completely disagree. And this can result in some interesting conversations about what the students thought their characters were about, and how they were interpreted.

Frankly, I also think it’s fun to see someone else play with your creation. Writing can be tough and I feel like this offers a bit of immediate gratification. It also gives the students the chance to do some writing that’s not connected to their novels, which means they write without the burden of worrying about the final result. But, of course, their words can help each other see their characters in new, and perhaps unexpected, ways.



Perils and pitfalls

Here’s an illustration I completed last week for Kendra Kandlestar and the Search for Arazeen.


This scene appears in the early part of the book, in a chapter called Perils and Pitfalls.  Kendra and her companions encounter many problems in this part of the book, and this includes trying to figure out how to cross a wide, deep chasm. This illustration shows their solution (or at least what they think is their solution).

I don’t normally produce illustrations in the chronological order in which they appear in the text. In fact, I normally jump around, all over the place. But, for some reason, I’ve left many of the illustrations from this part of the book to the very end. I think it’s because I’ve had so many issues figuring out how to draw jungle foliage.

This particular drawing caused me a lot of angst, as I kept playing with the perspective, the positioning of the figures, and the actual type of bark on the tree. To be honest, I’m still not sure if this is a final . . . it may get redrawn yet!

Danger in the jungle

Here’s an illustration I’ve been working on for Kendra Kandlestar and the Search for Arazeen. In this scene, Kendra and her companions happen upon a stone guardian that is meant to warn them from going any further. Here’s my first version:


Even though I’ve been to a few jungles in real life, I really haven’t drawn them before. Even though I like the above drawing, I felt everything needed to be much bigger.  So I did an alternate:


It now feels a bit more tropical, so I think this is the one I will go for. Incidentally, the design of my stone guardian was inspired by the Korean totem poles I’ve seen on one of my many trips to Asia.


Wooden totem.

Who would play the voice of Oki—and other questions answered for The Next Big Thing

My friend Jeremy Tankard tagged me for THE NEXT BIG THING. It’s a bit of a game of tag, in which one author (or as Jeremy likes to call himself, “authorstrator”) poses questions to another. I’m going to tag three of my author friends, kc dyer, Tanya Lloyd Kai, and Rachelle Delaney.

Here it goes! In some ways I wish I could talk about the idea I’m planning to write about after my Kendra Kandlestar series, but it’s just too premature to do so. That world is still under construction, so I just don’t think we should peek upon it yet. So, even though I post a lot about Kendra Kandlestar on this blog, I’m going to keep these questions all about her. Still, there are probably a few nuggets in my answers that I’ve never mentioned before.

* * *

trolls_&_elves1) What is the working title of your next book?

Kendra Kandlestar and the Search for Arazeen . . . though, for the longest time it was just Kendra 5. There was a time when I was sure I would just call it The Battle for Een. But as I developed the plot, I realized that this book was about so much more than simply a cataclysmic confrontation between an army of monsters and Eens. My goddaughter delights in telling me that she does not like books about “trolls and elves going on an adventure.” When she asked to pre-read the book, I made a special cover for her, called just that.

* * *

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

Since this is a series, I did everything in my power with the first four books to paint myself into a corner. This book is about wriggling out of that corner. The Search for Arazeen is going to be the final Kendra book, so it’s really about the last step of her journey, and the precious thing she is going to lose during this final stage.

* * *

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Until I can successfully lobby for a category called “Trolls and Elves Going On An Adventure” (see answer 1), I guess we’ll just stick with children’s literature/fantasy and adventure.

* * *

honest_oki_eek4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

If there was ever a movie made of Kendra Kandlestar (and I did receive one strange early-morning call from a Hollywood studio a couple years ago), then I it would pretty much have to be animated in some fashion.

In that case, we’re talking about casting strong voice-over actors. I have SO many personalities in the series, so here’s just a few of my ideas.

I’m not sure about Kendra herself, but as for her best friend, Honest Oki the mouse, I think he could be done quite well by my wife, Marcie Nestman. Though, I’m also convinced Marcie would do a fantastic job of capturing the impish and wise Winter Woodsong.

Morgan Freeman might make a good Uncle Griffinskitch, Seth Rogan would make a good Ratchet Ringtail, and Wallace Shawn, who played Vizzini in The Princess Bride, would make a fantastic Pugglemud.

* * *

trolls_&_elves25) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Trolls and elves go on an . . . no, just kidding. The truth is, I find it agonizingly painful to write a synopsis. But here’s a crack at it. As an army of monsters marches upon the Land of Een, young Kendra Kandlestar suffers a devastating loss that leaves her unable to continue her training as a wizard—or save her people from destruction.

* * *

6) Who is publishing your book?

Simply Read Books.

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7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I don’t really write in a conventional way, but I suppose I finished the first full draft in about eighteen months.

* * *

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I’ve started thinking about Kendra Kandlestar as The Hobbit meets The Wizard of Oz. It’s got some classical sensibilities, with some pretty gentle humour. But the characters, especially Kendra, Uncle Griffinskitch, Winter Woodsong, and Trooogul, are very three-dimensional and each complete very specific story arcs.

* * *

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

This entire series originally came from a painting, which I have talked about in a previous post. For this specific book, I was struck by something exchanged between Joseph Cambell and Bill Moyers in their famous series, The Power of Myth. Here’s a transcript (I actually wrote it down when I heard it, because I knew there was something in these words for me):

Moyers: In all of these journeys of mythology, there’s a place everyone wishes to find. What is it? The Buddhist talk of Nirvana. Jesus talks of peace. There’s a place of rest and repose. What is it?

Campell: Nirvana is a psychological state of mind. It’s not a place like ‘heaven.’ It’s not something that’s not here. It is here, in the middle of the turmoil . . . the whirlpool of life conditions. Nirvana is what? It’s the condition that comes when you are not compelled by desire, or by fear. Or by social commitments. When you hold your center, and act out of there.”

* * *

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

A new hairdo for Kendra, a gadget that records and plays smells, an escape from a stomach, a game of riddles with a sphinx, and a dance of Ungers . . . just a few of the things to be discovered in Kendra Kandlestar and the Search for Arazeen.