A Pinch of Reality

Rainbow Rowell mentioned in an interview that she fell in love with world building as she was writing the fictitious fanfiction pieces in her novel Fangirl. She had always been a reader of fantasy but never thought she’d be able to write it until she began creating those characters and their world. She fell in love with it and decided to write it into Carry On.

I identify with this “revelation” of sorts because something similar happened to me. I used to read lots of fantasy, and fairy tales and Grimm’s stories had been a staple of my childhood, but like Rowell I never thought I’d be able to write it. Until Desert Jewel.


Paperback Cover

I had always wondered how fantasy writers were able to create whole worlds complete with their populations, flora, and fauna and keep them believable. I was surprised to find out that it was easier than I thought.

In Desert Jewel I used reality as the main ingredient behind its world and a lot of the creatures in it. The desert itself was inspired by the great Sahara with a tad of Kalahari Desert mixed in. The creatures Jaali had to face during his quest across the desert were also inspired by real creatures. I needed a bizarre looking animal and I found the amazing Armadillo Lizard, which was perfect for giving a shape to my Shetani.

Armadillo Lizard

At one point of the story Jaali has to face an army of bullet ants, tiny and fierce. As unbelievable as they sound, these ants are very real and have the reputation of having the most painful sting in the world.

bullet ants

To create the world of Natale in Afrika I used my own knowledge of several African countries to create Milenda’s luxuriant world–modern and archaic at the same time.

I’m a linguist by training and I love using language in my stories. So I created a language for Desert Jewel. Since I’m not even remotely as talented as Tolkien, I used a real language (or a mixture of real languages) to create a made-up one. If you speak Swahili, chances are you will recognize some or part of the words used in Desert Jewel.

Moral of the story: you can create fantastic worlds that feel real as long as you use just a pinch of reality.

What makes you connect with the worlds in the books you read?


The next book in The Jewel Chronicles is coming soon. Find out what happens next.

On Worldbuilding

It seems like a lot of writers who do world building as part of their planning process go to meticulous detail about the topography and geography of all their locales. In fact, years ago when I was reading a lot of high (and not so high) fantasy and all its wonderfully detailed maps,  I used to think, “I will never be able to write fantasy because there is no way I can be this precise about my locations”.

My worlds are in my head and not being very mathematical-minded I just can’t seem to put it down in the less abstract form of a map or diagram. If I was to draw a map of my locations or world it may look a little bit like this:


Not terribly technical or interesting. A first grader probably could do this.

When I build my worlds I have a schematic view of what it looks like and it’s while I am describing it that it takes shape. My world, simply put, is made up of words.

I have a feeling that if I ever get published, there will be a mob of angry readers telling me off because my world is full of incongruences.  I can hear it already:

“X could not be three days away because earlier you wrote that Y was only 4 days away and that is a mathematical and geographic impossibility.”

Funny how readers of fantasy can be so concrete. When I read fantasy I pay very little attention to location besides the function it serves or how beautifully it is described. If you asked me to expand on the locations of any of my favorite fantasy books, I could not tell you much. My focus as a reader is the characters and their interaction with each other and/or their environment, not the environment itself. So, when I write I tend to also put the emphasis on the characters.

When it comes to the geography of it all I am a little like my fifth graders; I have a general sense of direction but a clear view of only the immediate landscape. What does that say about me as a writer? Comments welcomed 🙂

Image from “On Worldbuilding” by IIona Andrews