Please welcome A.F.E. Smith to The Qwillery as part of the 2015 Debut Author Challenge Guest Blogs. Darkhaven will be published on July 2nd by Harper Voyager (UK).
City as character: building Arkannen
The ways in which people and places interact with each other have long been a fascination to me. It’s self-evident that we act upon our environment, shaping it to suit our own purposes. That’s what humans do. But perhaps we tend less often to realise just how much the environment influences us, too. Our surroundings affect us at all levels, from the individual rooms in which we find ourselves to the wider landscapes we navigate every day. Think of the peace we find in a beautiful vista, the irritation that can be evoked by just a single flickering overhead light, the unease or contentment we experience – without even knowing why! – when entering certain buildings. Every tiny detail of the places we inhabit contributes to our mood and the way we perceive the world. So as a writer, I’ve found it important to remember that setting isn’t just backdrop. It’s not like the scenery on a stage, a flat background in front of which the characters move. It acts on, and is acted upon by, the characters.
To me, this often seems to be particularly true of cities – because cities, more than any other kind of man-made environment, have a character of their own. If you live in a city, you can probably list a handful of things that make it unique without having to think too hard. Even to a stranger walking the streets, it’s clear that no two cities have quite the same feel to them. Yet a city’s character runs deeper than that. A city is animated by its inhabitants. They are the blood that runs through its veins. And sometimes, the city gets into their blood, too. There’s a symbiotic relationship between a city and its long-term citizens that’s very hard to break.
When I created Arkannen, the city in which all the action of Darkhaven is set, I wanted it to be the kind of city that a person could spend their whole life in without ever wanting to leave. The kind of city that people outside it long to visit one day. Not because it’s perfect, but because it’s alive. And creating a living city means being aware of how it shapes, and is shaped by, its inhabitants. To build a city with character, you have to know the city just as well as you know the people who populate your story. You have to know where its inhabitants live, where they work, what they eat, how they spend their time. As the great Terry Pratchett once said, know how the water comes in and how the sewage gets out. Most of the details don’t go into the book, of course, but being able to refer to them if necessary brings the setting to life.
In addition, a city is not a static thing; it’s a growing, changing beast. So as well as knowing what it’s like now, you have to know how it reached that point. Most cities start as small settlements and then grow because they’re well placed in terms of resources or trade routes, so you can cut down through the layers of the city and find its history like fossils embedded in the rock. Arkannen is a little different in that it was designed and built to order, so rather than having grown organically it has a very precise structure: seven concentric rings, each accessed by a single gate. All the same, its relatively recent history is there to read, if you know where to look. It was built as a military stronghold in a less mechanical age, so it still has many of the features that come with that: narrow streets and crooked buildings and cobblestones, arrow slits and lookout posts and gates that are easy to barricade. But since then, it has gone through something of an industrial revolution. The lower rings, in particular, have become a place of steam trams and factories, airships and machines. Yet the impact on the higher rings has been less; apart from the new gas lamps, the training grounds of the fifth ring and the temples of the sixth are much the same as they ever were. And Darkhaven itself – right at the centre – doesn’t appear to have changed since it was built. It looks like what it is: a show of power and a warning to the world. Here be dragons.
So what effects does my city have on my characters, and vice versa? Some of them are obvious: for instance, the city’s structure – with its rings and gates – puts a very specific set of physical constraints on both the characters and the plot. A person trying to get up or down through the city has to take certain routes and pass through certain points. Yet there are also more subtle variations in attitude and mindset between different areas of the city. The lower rings are a place of innovation, of movement and industry, of the old and obsolete being swept away. Up in Darkhaven, things continue much the same as they have for hundreds of years; the emphasis is on preservation and tradition in order to maintain the family bloodline and its supremacy over the rest of the population. So the contrast and conflict between old and new in the city is directly representative of the contrast and conflict between old and new in the book: the shapeshifter family that rules from Darkhaven, and the new technology that could destroy them.
Harper Voyager (UK), July 2, 2015
eBook, 400 pages
Ayla Nightshade never wanted to rule Darkhaven. But her half-brother Myrren – true heir to the throne – hasn’t inherited their family gift, forcing her to take his place.
When this gift leads to Ayla being accused of killing her father, Myrren is the only one to believe her innocent. Does something more sinister than the power to shapeshift lie at the heart of the Nightshade family line?
Now on the run, Ayla must fight to clear her name if she is ever to wear the crown she never wanted and be allowed to return to the home she has always loved.
A.F.E. Smith is an editor of academic texts by day and a fantasy writer by night. So far, she hasn’t mixed up the two. She lives with her husband and their two young children in a house that someone built to be as creaky as possible – getting to bed without waking the baby is like crossing a nightingale floor. Though she doesn’t have much spare time, she makes space for reading, mainly by not getting enough sleep (she’s powered by chocolate). Her physical bookshelves were stacked two deep long ago, so now she’s busy filling up her e-reader.
What A.F.E. stands for is a closely guarded secret, but you might get it out of her if you offer her enough snacks.