How to Start a Story: Creating the World of Arcannia
This January, like so many other Netflix-bingers, I started decluttering my house. More specifically, my office. Even more specifically, the shelves in my office. I’ll let you in on a not-so-little secret, dear Underlined readers…
My husband and I are book hoarders.
We love to read.
We love hitting library book sales.
We cry when bookstores go out of business and cheer ourselves by trying to take home as much of the remaining stock as we can.
In short, we have a lot of books.
So many that, as I scanned the shelves of my office, I found multiple copies of the same Anne Boleyn biography, a couple of books I knew I’d also just seen on my husband’s nightstand, and several dozen I couldn’t actually remember purchasing.
Marie Kondo is right: some of these lovelies had to go!
Many boxes of donations later, I could see open shelves once more and knew just what I wanted to fill them with.
Ever since I was little kid, I’ve loved scribbling in journals. Fresh blank pages inspire me, begging to be filled with thoughts and ideas, lists and stories. I keep them all, stored away in boxes and bins, hidden in desk drawers, mostly forgotten once they’ve served their purpose. But there is beauty in a tool well-used, and I knew I wanted to fill my office with their well-loved energy, so out they came, lining the shelves with their familiar spines and beat-up spirals.
As I worked, I flipped through them, rediscovering plots I’d not thought of in decades, old doodles of worlds long forgotten, and this:
On the floor beside my desk was the notebook I’d started when I began crafting the world for House of Salt and Sorrows—then called Theodonia because I couldn’t come up with a satisfying name and my daughter’s teddy bear, Theo, was staring at me from across the nursery while she napped! Gone are the fresh clean pages. The cover is battered, and it is filled with research notes, scribbles, exclamation points, and giant slashes from when my thoughts went astray. I love it.
When I start creating a new story, I always have to begin with world building. I need to be able to see the environment the characters inhabit, need to understand its rhythms and flow. I like starting out big—what does the land itself look like?—and work my way through family histories, religions, mythologies, down to the smallest of details—clothing, architecture, and even scents.
Everything is written in a notebook.
I’ll keep that with me as I begin to outline the story, using my world building journal as a reference book and touchstone. I know I can always come back to it when I start to lose my way in plotting. Rereading my notes helps refresh my mind and sink me back into the mood and atmosphere that I set out to create.
I also love using Pinterest to grab on to images that match my story’s aesthetics. House of Salt and Sorrows is a marriage of two retellings—the Grimm Brothers’ “Twelve Dancing Princesses” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee.” I loved the gloomy, Gothic world of Poe’s “kingdom by the sea,” and I wanted Highmoor to fully embody that before I added in the sparkling fairy-tale magic from “Princesses.” As a result, my inspiration boards are a blend of dark and moody maritime houses, crashing waves, and glittering gowns. Scanning through them is like taking a swim in wave-swept waters, you can’t help but be drawn in and fully immersed.
If you want to check out more of my visual inspirations for the book House of Salt and Sorrows, click here.