World Building in The Sin Eater's Daughter Trilogy
Melinda Salisbury was born in the 1980s in a landlocked city, before escaping to live by the sea somewhere in the south of England. The Sin Eater’s Daughter, the first part of her trilogy set in an intricately woven fantasy world, was the bestselling YA debut of 2015. It was followed by The Sleeping Prince and now the final, eagerly awaited chapter, The Scarecrow's Daughter. Below, exclusively for Foyles, Melinda describes how she built the land of Lormere.
One of the things that people always comment on with The Sin Eater’s Daughter trilogy is the world building, and how solid and real it is. And the reason for that is because it is real – or at least based in reality – and because I spent a long time considering everything I could think of to make it solid.
For me, the best fantasy novels are always the ones that feel as though a small twist of fate, or a wrong turn on a misty night, might take you there. The ones that you might have a chance of surviving, because you understand at least some of the rules. Given that I already have a lot of fantastical elements across the series; poisonous skin, a prince waking from an eternal sleep, blood that can be used to create gold, to give eternal life and even awaken stone, I wanted to be sure the world was a good stage for my story, and not a character itself. So I based it on the geography of the world I know, and I used those real-world elements as guidance for creating my world.
'Lormere is fertile, but the altitude means a lot of the land is best used for livestock. We can grow our own potatoes, turnips, parsnips, rye and beans, but grain doesn’t thrive here. We have to import it from the north of Tregellan, where they have abundant farmland next to the river that separates Tregellan from Tallith. All of the fish and seafood for our table comes from Tregellan too, fished from the river or brought upstream by the fishermen who brave the Tallithi Sea.'
When I was building my world, I found it really useful to know the answers to the following questions:
1. What is the climate and geography of the world you’re building? Are other countries nearby? What are they like by comparison?
This determines almost everything about the primary level, and to a degree, the secondary level of the world. The climate will tell you what kind of plants grow there – of course, you’re more than welcome to build an arctic tundra world where corn and fruit trees grow with abandon, but your readers will likely find it difficult to engage with, as it goes against how we know nature works. To make it 'real' you’d then have to invent the science of that world – the physics and biology, which is an awful lot of work. The kinds of plants that grow, or don’t, determine the animal life present. The kinds of animals determine what the people do, wear, eat, how they travel, the kinds of houses they live in.
And of course, you need to know who and what is nearby, so you can figure out the languages of your world. In the world of the Sin Eater, Tregellans and Lormerians don’t speak the exact same language, but they’re close enough in common that they can speak their own languages and understand each other, like Norway and Denmark. It’s unrealistic to have a vast amount of countries speaking the same language – just think of the diversity of dialect in a country as small as the UK. But if you have characters from different counties mixing, you’ll need to explain why they can have conversations.
2. What is the technological state of your world? How does medicine and science work? What about education, working life, etc.? How do people communicate over distances?
Even if it’s not detailed in the book, you need to know. And again, being able to roughly correspond with a known period of history lends a lot of credibility to your story, as well as giving you a starting point to create new rules. I knew there would be journeys in my story, but I also knew because I was setting it in a pseudo-medieval period that any journey would have to be completed on horseback, or on foot. You need to know how messages are sent, how illness and disease are coped with, how things are learned, and taught, and when, and why. My main character, Twylla, can’t read until the end of the first book, because there is no formal education system in the country she lives in, and no need for her to know how to do so. It’s a tiny detail, but it adds an authenticity to the world – again, because it reinforces knowledge we associate with those living conditions, around that time period.
3. What is the economic state of the country? What industry is present? How do people make money, or trade and barter?
It doesn’t matter what kind of world you build, there will be an element of trade and barter and so you need to know the economic system of your world. This usually ties in to the geography and climate aspect. As the quote above reveals, there is no opportunity for fishing in Lormere, due to its location, so fishing isn’t a possible, or likely, job for a Lormerian. Neither is dairy farmer, due to the landscape. But of course there are other jobs, and as the builder of a world, you need to know what those jobs could be, even if they’re never seen on page. Because these jobs will determine the fabrics available for dresses, the food on tables, etc. etc.
4. Finally, you need to know how the world is governed, and what, if anything, the people believe in.
Someone, or someones, are always in charge. And this will have a knock-on effect on the rest of the world and how it’s managed – including the justice and punishment systems. The same goes for a belief system – a world doesn’t need to have a faith to make it realistic, but having an element of faith – whether gods, superstitions, or just old myths and legends will flesh out a world, and add colour to the language of the world too. Think about the number of times you say ‘Oh my God’ and then imagine what your characters would say instead, if they live in a world where you haven’t given them gods. Belief systems often tie back into governance systems too – in Sin Eater Lormere’s ruling classes take their power directly from Gods, but atheist Tregellan is governed by an elected council.
This makes world building sound like a lot of work, and in truth it is. Especially because the vast majority of your world building won’t – and shouldn’t – make it onto the page. But having the foundation there means you can build a world on top of it that readers can visit, and enjoy in the same way they would if they visited another country here in the real world. If you put the time and effort into building a solid world before you release your characters into it, you’ll find it much easier to manage them.