Earlier this week I started talking about the early days of creating an entire fantasy universe from scratch, in answer to a question about how that worldbuilding has evolved over the years. Because I’ve been working in this universe for such a long time (since I was ten years old in 1989!) there have definitely been stages to that evolution.
In the previous installment, I described how the first details of Asrellion emerged from the tip of a child’s brain as she explained it to the new girl she wanted to befriend. And how, really, a lot of that early worldbuilding was pretty stupid. No fit foundation to build further work on top of.
Also, when you’re ten years old, then eleven, then twelve and onward, you’re constantly changing your mind about what you like, what’s interesting to you, what’s cool. You’re always learning new things and adjusting your understanding of the world and of yourself accordingly. You try on new self-identities like a new outfit every few months. All of this is just part of growing up. So in a very real way, Asrellion grew up with me through those years.
The next era of worldbuilding, as I started to clean up that mess while making new ones, was tumultuous but extremely productive.
Phase Two: I Have No Idea What I’m Doing, Actually, But That’s Okay?
When I was a toddler, The Hobbit made me want to write stories, but when I was sixteen, a book called Tigana made me realize that there’s a difference between writing a story down and storytelling. It honestly changed my life. Not immediately for the better.
After the utterly amazing and emotional storytelling journey of that book, I’m afraid I went through a pretty severe “I don’t know how to do that and I lack the ability to ever learn, so I should just give it up” phase. I’ve… had a few of those over the years. (I almost had another, many years later, after reading American Gods, but by then I was old enough to snap out of it by deciding that it didn’t matter if what I was writing was trash, comparatively, or if no one was ever going to read it, I still had to write.)
I did make another attempt at Mornnovin in junior high and high school after a friend lost more than two hundred pages of the original draft(!!!), forcing me to start over, but I wasn’t any more satisfied with that one than I was with the first.
But, while I was busy wallowing in this Imposter Syndrome, I was also reading a lot. A lot. I went to college as an English major and read a lot there too. And because I’d had my Storytelling Awakening, I was now really noticing what things did and did not contribute to an effective and well-told story. Even though I’d convinced myself I could never learn how to do it like the greats, I was, after all, learning.
The thing about being a writer, even one with Imposter Syndrome, is that you never completely stop making stuff up. In fact, what has usually ended up happening to me is that the more stymied I feel on the storytelling front, the more I tend to lean into thinking about the tiny unrelated details of the world that I feel like I’m being locked out of. Can’t write a story, I guess, but I sure can hyperfixate on calendars or spend an entire week thinking about how elves would go about having snowball fights!
So this became the heavy lifting phase of the evolution of Asrellion. Most of the names, places, dates, history, cultures, and intent shifted during this time, in my early to late twenties. I attempted yet another version of Mornnovin, and this time I actually made it all the way through an entire trilogy plus a related stand-alone novel. As the work progressed, the worldbuilding naturally filled itself in.
This era, roughly 1996-2008, is where we can trace most of the development of elven history and culture, as I finally gave serious thought to the elves I was writing rather than simply coasting on Tolkien’s work. It’s also when Tomanasíl Maiantar started to be a real character and not just a cartoon villain with no other purpose but to stand in the way of whatever cool thing Loríen wanted to be doing.
Not coincidentally, these were also my big fanfiction years. As a reader of fanfiction, and later a judge for an awards site, I came to be aware of which fantasy and storytelling elements people think of as “tropes,” which are considered overdone, and which are fan favorites. To be completely honest, fanfiction taught me more functional, usable information about the nuts and bolts of writing than school ever did.
I finally started keeping notes, which is probably important and one of the only useful things I took away from college. In fact, I sort of became obsessive about keeping everything consolidated in this cool three-ring binder with a pretty sun-moon-and-stars design on it. (Sadly it was one of those floppy binders and it eventually fell apart.) It gave me a unique thrill of satisfaction to flip through all of my reference materials and be able to actually see how much worldbuilding I was doing.
Possibly one of the biggest single things I did to grow the worldbuilding at this time was getting really serious about the conlang. There was an exercise I developed in these years where I would take a page of existing material – mine, someone else’s, whatever – and translate the entire thing into Elven. That meant figuring out consistent grammar applications; more, it also meant stopping every few words when I would encounter one that I hadn’t invented in Elven yet, giving some thought to the kind of sound that concept would have in the mind of an elf, doing a bit of research into existing world languages to sort of get a feel for the way people all over the world hear and think about that concept, then crafting something of my own. Doing whole pages like this got me way deep into building my own language. Who knows – maybe I’ll publish an Elven guide someday.
Aaaaaaaalsooo, and I almost wasn’t going to admit this, but… playing a lot of The Sims 2 during this time really helped me to see the various side-characters and locations and families as real entities going through the mundane business of daily life. Yes, I’m saying that I built various Asrellion locations in The Sims, popped my characters in, and watched them go about their lives. Apart from being terribly amusing (Sim!Lanoralas really really really hated Sim!Qroíllenas and honestly tried to spend all of his time working out on the weight bench. Chill, man. Sim!Neldorí is exactly what you would expect and never quit, and consequently, all of the other Sims hated him), it provided me with some unexpected insights into the social complexities of life in Asrellion. Yes, really. One reason the world of Asrellion feels lived-in is because I spent many computer hours actually watching it be lived in.
I think it also can’t be denied that the evolution of Asrellion was significantly impacted, in ways that are impossible to quantify, by seeing the major fantasy influence of my childhood brought to life on the big screen during these years.
Despite multiple stops, starts, dry spells, and mind-changes, this long phase of Asrellion’s evolution gave us:
- solid prototypes of Mornnovin, Trajelon, Eselvwey, and the related Faríel, which you don’t know about yet
- a more “human” Tomanasíl
- map names and geological features that were the result of more than spur-of-the-moment thought – including “Asrellion” itself
- most of the grammar and vocabulary of the Elven conlang
- detailed visualizations of the individual cities of Evlédíen and the structure of elven society
- a slimming down of the characters and story elements I was trying to cram into each novel
- serious conceptualization work on Elven, Grenlecian, Telrishti, and Mysian cultures
- much pondering of what it would mean to be immortal
- the Creation Myth
- fleshing-out of the deep history of Asrellion
- Autumn Festival
- the first throwaway appearance of a bodyguard named Sovoqatsu, somewhere in the middle of Eselvwey
- The Eleven Noble Houses
- endless “what would x character do in y situation” thought exercises
- a noticeably Shakespearean flavor and tragic bent
- the first binder full of detailed – and I mean detailed – supplemental notes, including
- the first Elven glossary
- the Elven alphabet
- elven poetry (that you’ll never see lol)
- the history of Naoise’s family
- so many timeline charts
- a brief obsession with pearlescent colored gel pens
- the first time I thought about the calendar in Asrellion
- rough outlines and character profiles for a 7-book series on the early days of Asrellion
I do still have a copy of the map from these years, but it’s pencil-drawn and far too smudged now to be of any use to anyone. A nice memento, I suppose.
This era is technically not the longest but is definitely the meatiest stretch in the history of the history of Asrellion. That’s because this is when I was learning how to do what I wanted to do, and how to be more thoughtful and intentional about doing it. It’s not a coincidence that I was doing a lot of living in these years too. Living is how you develop any ideas worth actually writing about.
Which set the stage for Phase Three.