Super excited to have award-winning author Jeffe Kennedy as a guest on the blog today! As a huge fan of her work (Read my review of her new release, The Shift of the Tide), I am always so impressed by the cultures in her novels. Seriously, I have found myself talking about some of the intricate and fascinating aspects only to realize the level of detail I went into made it sound like an actual culture that existed somewhere. So, I asked if Jeffe might tell us a bit about her writing approach regarding the different cultures in her Fantasy worlds and what she does to make them seem so real.
I often get asked about how I construct the cultures in my fantasy worlds. Well, more broadly, readers and other writers ask about my worldbuilding process. Anela here specifically asked about the cultures. She mentioned the Nahanaun culture from The Pages of the Mind (Anela says: This one just won a RITA award, woooo!!), in particular, and the Faerie society in my Covenant of Thorns trilogy. She also asked about the cultures as they’re experienced by my characters as outsiders to them.
That last question is actually quite pertinent. It’s a common trope in fantasy to have a character who is what we call “a fish out of water.” This acts on a couple of levels. The character who is plunged into an unfamiliar world with a new set of rules has to find new abilities in themselves, to learn to overcome the challenges of those circumstances. If a person remains in familiar surroundings, there’s no impetus for them to change. Taken out of their pond, they have to learn to breathe air in order to survive. Also, a fish out of water character serves as an avatar for the reader—they allow the reader to learn the world along with them.
As for the rest, I often reply that I learn the world as the characters do, by riding around in their heads as the story unfolds. That’s true, but it’s also an oversimplification. I might observe the world through their perceptions—which includes their own ideas and cultural preconceptions—but I try to base aspects of the world on real life principles.
- Physical Laws.
It’s important to determine if the world follows the same physical laws as ours. Some aspects, like gravity and molecular cohesion are hard to get away from and still have a comprehensible story. In the world of The Twelve Kingdoms and The Uncharted Realms (the world of The Pages of the Mind), most of the standard physical laws apply, with the addition of magic. In the Faerie of Covenant of Thorns, I twisted up some of those laws. The presence of magic changes how the natural world works, particularly the rate of mutation and evolution.
I’m a biologist by training, so I’ve studied a lot about how ecology—climate, temperature, geological features like oceans or mountains—influences the flora, fauna and human civilizations there. For example, in our world, animals tend to be larger the farther north they live. So Wyoming bobcats are much bigger than New Mexico bobcats. When I built the world of Nahanau, I knew the islands would be formed from volcanic activity and be in a tropical climate. The types of plant life and animals there would be informed by all of that. Because volcanic islands have barrier reefs (a consequence of how they’re formed), I knew there would be sea life associated with barrier reefs, and so forth.
- People and politics
The humans who live in a particular environment are as much a product of it as the plants and animals. The Nahanauns live in a consistently warm environment, so their dress and building construction reflects that. On top of that, because of the openness of their society, I figured they’d have more flexible ideas about personal property. In Faerie, humans have no magic and thus no power. They’re lower class citizens and their towns reflect that. In that society, the types of fae who have the most magic—and are most willing to wield it—rise to the highest levels. But that kind of society leads to near-constant battling, as well.
Deciding on a culture’s language can be a twisty proposition. Because a book is an exercise of language to begin with, the language the story is written in dictates a great deal. I usually make the “home” language of the main characters be pretty close to modern American English, for simplicity’s sake. Some readers don’t like this because they feel the language of epic and high fantasy should be like in Tolkien. But Tolkein wrote in the early 1900s—the language he used was different than modern American English. I don’t think it’s any more “accurate” to use British English of the early 1900s for fantasy that American English of the early 2000s.
When I go to create a language foreign to the main characters, I usually base it off another language in our world, so there’s a sense of familiarity that also evokes place. For Nahanau, I used Hawaiian words and put a slightly different spin on them. I did this for names, as well. For Faerie, I used Gaelic as a base.
Finally, because I wanted Nahanaun to be a perplexing language for the heroine, Dafne, I complicated their verb tenses. I added words to indicate past and future, like oriental languages such as Chinese do. I also had those tenses colored with good or bad fortune, partly to illustrate the culture, and to make things more interesting.
Finally, I always try to be sure to include the spiritual outlook of the human culture. How people view the intangible world is as important as the effects of the tangible one.
Many thanks for being a guest on the blog, Jeffe!
Check out her newest release in The Uncharted Realms series, The Shift of the Tide
Free from the hand of a tyrant, the Twelve Kingdoms have thrown all that touch them into chaos. New allies appear–and enemies encroach–from all sides. To survive, they must adapt to this new reality without a moment of doubt…
Growing up in a country where magic was common as dust, Zynda never had to worry about her enchantments upsetting the balance of nature. But the land beyond the borders of the thirteenth kingdom calls to her. It may be foreign and ugly, but the strangeness is laced with an excitement she has never known. Outside her homeland, Zynda’s shapeshifting and sorcery are a potent advantage to nations grasping for dominance–and the thrill of power lures her even as she recognizes the threat she poses to these magic-buffeted realms.
A ruthless enemy stalks them, promising destruction if she does not fight with all her strength–but if she upsets the equilibrium of the land, all will pay, the common people most of all. And a man of this outside world fascinates her, a mossback with no scrap of magic in him. He knows nothing of the fears and temptations pulling at her. But in his steady embrace she learns she must choose well–for the consequences may reach farther than she ever imagined…
About Jeffe Kennedy
Jeffe Kennedy is an award-winning author whose works include novels, non-fiction, poetry, and short fiction. She has been a Ucross Foundation Fellow, received the Wyoming Arts Council Fellowship for Poetry, and was awarded a Frank Nelson Doubleday Memorial Award.
Her award-winning fantasy romance trilogy The Twelve Kingdoms hit the shelves starting in May 2014. Book 1, The Mark of the Tala, received a starred Library Journal review and was nominated for the RT Book of the Year while the sequel, The Tears of the Rose received a Top Pick Gold and was nominated for the RT Reviewers’ Choice Best Fantasy Romance of 2014. The third book, The Talon of the Hawk, won the RT Reviewers’ Choice Best Fantasy Romance of 2015. Two more books followed in this world, beginning the spin-off series The Uncharted Realms. Book one in that series, The Pages of the Mind, has also been nominated for the RT Reviewer’s Choice Best Fantasy Romance of 2016 and won RWA’s 2017 RITA® Award. The second book, The Edge of the Blade, released December 27, 2016, and is a PRISM finalist, along with The Pages of the Mind. The next in the series, The Shift of the Tide, will be out in August, 2017. A high fantasy trilogy taking place in The Twelve Kingdoms world is forthcoming from Rebel Base books in 2018.
She also introduced a new fantasy romance series, Sorcerous Moons, which includes Lonen’s War, Oria’s Gambit, The Tides of Bàra, and The Forests of Dru. She’s begun releasing a new contemporary erotic romance series, Missed Connections, which started with Last Dance and continues in With a Prince.
In 2019, St. Martins Press will release the first book, The Orchid Throne, in a new fantasy romance series, The Forgotten Empires.
Her other works include a number of fiction series: the fantasy romance novels of A Covenant of Thorns; the contemporary BDSM novellas of the Facets of Passion; an erotic contemporary serial novel, Master of the Opera; and the erotic romance trilogy, Falling Under, which includes Going Under, Under His Touch and Under Contract.
She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with two Maine coon cats, plentiful free-range lizards and a very handsome Doctor of Oriental Medicine.
Jeffe can be found online at her website: JeffeKennedy.com, every Sunday at the popular SFF Seven blog, on Facebook, on Goodreads and pretty much constantly on Twitter @jeffekennedy. She is represented by Sarah Younger of Nancy Yost Literary Agency.