Jenny Davidson on World Building

Jenny Davidson spoke to us about writing alternative historical fiction, world building, and her latest novel, Invisible Things.

Jenny Davidson is the author of two other novels, The Explosionist and Heredity, as well as academic books including Breeding: A Partial History of the Eighteenth Century and Hypocrisy and The Politics of Politeness: Manners and Morals from Locke to Austen. She teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

A Conversation with Jenny Davidson

Q: Could you tell us a bit about your new novel, Invisible Things?

A: I have always been in love with northern landscapes, and in 2000 and 2001 I took a series of trips – to Russia, to Estonia, to Sweden – where the beauty of these northern cities on the water was fully brought home to me. I started to envision a world in which these cities were politically united to one another, a world that combined elements of the fairy tales I read when I was growing up (especially Hans Christian Andersen’s "The Snow Queen") but also the real landscapes of these cities and a fully realized technological and political society.

"Your world will inevitably be colored by other fictional worlds that you’ve encountered... but try to go back to the 'real stuff' for your world-building, i.e., your own imagination plus historical materials."

- Jenny Davidson on World Building


Q: Invisible Things is alternative historical fiction, set in a 1938 Europe which differs in various respects from the real past. Could you talk about the process of inventing this fictional world? What kind of historical research did you do? What rules and limitations did you set for yourself in writing about this world?

A: I read a ton of books about all sorts of different people and places – I find that reading old books is the best way to set my imagination going. I knew that the inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel, would be an important figure in my alternate world, and I found all sorts of fascinating details in various biographies: Nobel’s father, for instance, was a depressive and failed inventor who had come up with all sorts of prescient but impractical ideas, like using trained seals to deposit explosive mines on the hulls of ships. So lots of the strangest details in the books (The Explosionisttells the first part of my heroine Sophie’s story, though Invisible Things is written to stand on its own) are actually true rather than made-up – similarly, spiritualism, which plays an important role in The Explosionist, was a huge craze in our own world, and all sorts of highly respectable scientific figures tried to communicate with the dead by way of photography, radios and other forms of technology that we think of as being primarily secular and modern.

Q: Could you recommend some dos and don'ts of world building for writers of speculative fiction?

A: Your world will inevitably be colored by other fictional worlds that you’ve encountered – two of the ones that were important for me were Garth Nix’s Abhorsen books and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials – but try to go back to the “real stuff” for your world-building, i.e. your own imagination plus historical materials. One set of novels that I really love are Lian Hearn’s Nightingale Floor books, set in a fantastical world that has much in common with medieval Japan – it feels much fresher than other fictional worlds that are made up out of a hodgepodge of secondary or literary fantasies (it is hard to write about elves for instance without writing under the shadow of Lord of the Rings).

Q: You have written fiction for both adults and for young adult readers. What differences are there in the way you approach a manuscript that is intended for young adults? Any particular challenges in writing for this age group?

A: I don’t think there’s any significant difference! It’s more of a publisher’s category than a writer’s category for me, in other words. I think that writing for young adult readers makes one especially attentive to not wasting the reader’s time – to making the shape of the story clear and luminous – but that this is a lesson that serves one well when writing for adults also.

Q: What is something that you learned in the process of writing your two young adult novels that you wish you had known when you were first starting out?

A: What I always, always say is that books take much longer to write than one thinks possible! I first was thinking about this pair of books in the summer of 2003, and I drafted The Explosionist in the first of 2004 – but it was several years (and a number of revisions) later before I had a contract, and the second half of the story is only appearing now, in late 2010. So my advice for aspiring writers is to be very patient, and to seek out feedback on a draft and be willing to revise it repeatedly in order to sharpen the voice and make the bones of the story emerge from what is often either a baggy and shapeless or else somewhat underrealized draft! Sometimes it makes more sense to view drafting a novel as a learning experience and move on to take the lessons learned to a new project, but I must confess that I am a dogged and determined person who finds it hard to give up on a project I’ve already sunk a lot of time in – so for me, it’s important to acknowledge that a first full draft is just that, a draft that will undergo important subsequent changes before it turns into something that is ready to appear in the world.

World Building - Next Steps

Did you enjoy this interview about world building and alternative historical fiction? You might also like our interview with Nicole Peeler about fantasy writing.

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