OK, so here’s the big, dirty secret when it comes to world-building in the Cortii series: I didn’t ‘plan’ the Cortii.
The society evolved naturally as I went through the drafts of the first few books in the series, and if I’m being honest, the characters and the situations they find themselves in have really guided all of the world-building I’ve done since on the Cortii. Essentially, I discovered Cortiian society almost exactly as a reader would; by interacting with my characters.
Case study: Khyria Ilan
Khyria was the character who initially lodged herself in my head and demanded to have her story told. From memory, I started telling myself ‘Khyria’ stories at about the age of six, maybe seven. While it took another seven years for me to actually take the step of writing any of these stories down, the core of the character had existed in my head for a long time.
When I was a child, the main facet of the character was that she rode a huge black horse. (I was six. Anything over St. Bernard size qualified as huge.) Growing up on a boat meant that I’d never been anywhere near a horse. This made the Khyria character exotic from the start, where I was concerned.
When I ended up in boarding school, the stories became my talisman against boredom in class, isolation, forcibly staying in one place, and insomnia. Because I was spending so much more time day-dreaming, the Khyria character evolved rapidly, as did her surroundings. This was probably when most of the ‘world-building’ for the Cortii really occurred.
I discovered in short order that Khyria was a fighter. That fell into place from a number of sources; the character had never been passive. She had always been competent and self-assured in my head; in my first year in formal schooling I found out why. Being able to kill someone with your bare hands in the time it takes most people to blink tends to allow a character to broadcast confidence and assurance. For the record, the school I was in at that point was a Quaker school. It wasn’t until I went to university that I was able to take up martial arts or study any kind of combative skill, so the character remained pretty damn exotic to me.
That Khyria was a mercenary followed fairly naturally from that discovery. Her setting wasn’t regulated in the way that standard armed forces usually are. The stories she ended up in reflected an inherently violent environment, and a lot of the brutality stemmed from the authority figures, which showed in Khyria’s distrust of and wariness for the Councils.
Developing the Councils led to other things. Clearly Khyria wasn’t still alive because of her good looks, so she required people who provided unofficial equipment, people who provided information, and at least a few people able and willing to provide physical back-up on occasion. In an environment where the commanders were that corrupt, there would also be people willing to profit from the chaos and use blackmail as leverage. Over the next couple of years, writing Through the Hostage and Fighting Shadows, I met more of Khyria’s inner circle, both allies and enemies.
As far as world-building goes, the technique has proven to be remarkably effective. I rarely write myself into a plothole. Not never, but rarely. Most of the basics where Khyria are concerned are things I’ve been playing with the concepts for for so long that if I find myself with a question, my memory usually coughs up a flash card pretty fast. It wasn’t until I’d published my first book that I actually started keeping written notes on details to do with my world and my characters that went beyond a basic vocabulary.
The other payoff, which I didn’t actually realise was a payoff until I did a lot more formal research on writing as an art form, came when I realised that a lot of authors start with world-building, and then end up having to figure out things such as there’s no possible reason for their hero’s major city (for example) to be a major city aside from the fact that their hero starts his life there (no trade, no travel, no supplies, or some similar list of grievances) – and they discover this after they’ve started writing. Since I started with a character, and her surroundings grew organically from interacting with her (as you can see at the end of my case study), I didn’t have those types of problems.
There were mutations. When I first came across the akrushkari in a story, I came across them in the context of torture and a secure cell. It took a bit more of the story to find out that they were actually under command of the Councils, and a bit more again to find out what else they did, what their origins were, etc. However, because of my bass-ackwards world-building, I didn’t have to invent them in isolation. As soon as I came across the Councils in a story, it was immediately obvious to me that if the leadership of a mercenary culture that proficient was that autocratic and that sociopathic, there had to be some very tangible reasons why they were still alive and in power.
In case it hasn’t become apparent from all this: as writers go, I’m not a plotter.