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Sticks and Stones: My Approach to World Building – a guest post by Leigh Bardugo

It’s always a little uncomfortable for me to talk about the way that I built the world of the Grisha Trilogy. As a novice fantasy author, I didn’t have an established method or some series of practices. I just had to find my way. Still, looking back, it’s clear to me that the process broke down into two basic phases.

1. Structure: The Reader’s Sense of Order

For me, stories always begin with scenes I can’t get out of my head, bits of dialogue that keep me awake at night. I scribble notes of those (and occasionally I mumble unintelligible voice memos into my phone late at night).

These little scraps of narrative lead to questions. They start simple: Who are the players? What the heck are they doing in that field/hatshop/bathhouse? What do they need from one another? As the plot unfolds, they become more complex: What are their motives? What are their strengths? Maybe most importantly, what are their limitations?

By answering these questions, I start to build the logical foundations of the world. I begin to define the parameters of the magical system (if there is one) and the way that people relate to each other in terms of personal and political status. All of this goes to answer the broader question, the one the reader has at the start of the story: How does power function in this world? This is the bedrock.

2. Texture: The Reader’s Sense of Place

The initial, very rough draft was all about that first type of world building: the functionality of the Fold, Alina’s power, the Darkling’s power, the parameters of Grisha magic that would come to be known as the Small Science. Even so, when I set about seeking a cultural touchstone for my world, I hit almost instantly on Tsarist Russia. It was the right fit for the story I wanted to tell and for some of the power dynamics that were already beginning to emerge.

The second phase of world building required research into language, food, folklore, and history. It gave me the fire lichen of windswept Tsibeya, the two palaces of Os Alta, roasted lynx, white-washed chapel walls, the pleasure of rationed sugar in a glass of hot tea poured from a samovar. But it also resulted in unexpected shifts in my narrative and gave shape to forces that had just been hinted at in the first draft—an ill-equipped army of conscripted serfs, an incompetent monarch squandering resources as his nation fails to industrialize, a feared and envied magical elite culled from the populations of other countries. This is when it pays to build in wood instead of stone, to stay adaptable and open to possibility.

I started with sticks, but I knew I had a story when they became tinder. I suppose there’s a third phase of world building and it’s transgression—consequences, the violation of taboo, when you break the rules and let your characters suffer for it, when you rock the foundations and burn it all down.