In this episode, I describe my first ‘disastrous’ trip outside the fortress.
I discuss ideas on how to introduce your world to your audience.
And the Strange but True details the final Supernatural Tour of the City of Bones.
How to introduce your audience to your world.
How to encourage your audience to create the world with you.
My first sight of the City of Bones happened so suddenly, I’d no time to be nervous. The morning after I’d seen the property brochures, shortly after I awoke, Stein Cat arrived, and said, ‘Let’s take a walk outside.’
Shinytop sighed with pleasure, and said, ‘About time.’
Before I knew what was happening, I had Shinytop in my hands and was hurrying down the corridor after the cat.
No great curtains parted to unveil the world. No trumpets sounded. No heralds cried, ‘Welcome to Dunari!’
We just passed through the courtyard separating the tower from the main entrance, opened that main entrance, and stepped outside.
And my perception of life changed. Forever.
About forty metres ahead, was a great wall of white. The glare of sunlight off bones made me squint, so it was a few moments before the wall organised itself into a line of buildings composed of bones.
After seeing the brochures, I had expected the square to be surrounded by higgledy-piggledy bunches of bones of various shapes and sizes. Collapsed skeletons are not organised by any standards. Instead, the buildings surrounding the square were of uniform height. Yes, the large bones were higgledy-piggledy, but all the gaps between them were filled with man-made constructions.
Nothing rose higher than four storeys, which meant nobody could see across Ganhook’s wall.
Every door and every window in every building had curved frames, like warped ovals. Combined with the naturally bevelled edges of the bones, this gave the street a wonderfully rhythmic feel.
It should have been easy on my eyes. But the glare of the bones was making my head throb.
Some of these buildings—the ones filling the gaps between the larger bones—were a mix of heavy timber beams and smaller bones laid like bricks. Beautiful cool green vegetation rose around the buildings and sprouted through cracks in the sides of some of the taller structures.
The grey cobblestone street did little to absorb the glare. The square was pedestrianised. But down some of the side streets, I saw three wheeled vehicles zipping about, making shocking whining sounds that rose and fell like sirens.
Although I was trapped in a hostile world, I’d never felt so free. I felt a rush. I felt I could have hugged the first person who walked past – just because they were human.
Apart from Ganhook (and Shinytop, who I still wasn’t sure had been a human once), I had had no contact with a human being for over four weeks.
Not that there were more than a handful of people out and about so early.
Mostly, the people looked like normal people, a fair mix of tall, short, round, and skinny. While many wore plain pants and free flowing waist length robes, a few had uniforms of dark grey with black buttons and tan boots.
They behaved like people, too. Chatting, coughing, limping, or rushing past, their faces red with stress.
Some stared my way, and pointed.
An intense paranoia swamped me, set my heart throbbing like a drumbeat to summon who weren’t already staring, to stare anyway.
Shinytop said, ‘It’s nice to be out.’
I fought the urge to flee back into the compound. I said, “They’re all staring.”
Shinytop made a clicking sound, a sound I had never heard before. A happy sound. He said, ‘When you see it from the outside, Ganhook’s compound is quite the place, isn’t it?’
I hissed, ‘They’re all staring at me.’
Stein Cat snorted, and said, ‘Nobody is staring at you. Besides, if anyone was staring, they’d be staring at me. I’m more important.’
Glancing back, I saw the exterior of Ganhook’s compound for the first time. And gasped. From the outside, the bone wall appeared twice as high, and the upper fangs glimmered like they’d been polished.
The entrance door appeared to have shrunken back into the wall. It was a small metal door. Plain, and inconspicuous. I had expected some grand portal, a statement of power.
This was the opposite.
And it was the tower that people were staring at. The stone structure loomed like a living thing. Now, that ‘was’ a statement, a definite message of power that stood like a grey fist amid the bleached bones.
I wondered if Ganhook was staring down from any of the dozen or so windows. I hoped he was.
Organised chaos. That’s how I would describe it. Chaos, because nothing fitted snugly next to anything else in the way that houses packed a long street. Organised, because, somehow, the whole jumble of bones and windows and doors and roofs and paths all fitted together anyway.
Here and there, people were drawing the compound, dabbing long coloured pencils against wooden support palettes. Watching them gave me a relatable anchor to focus on in the confusion. The urge to check out their work, to ‘hopefully’ see it was worse than my drawing, seized me.
But everything else demanded my attention, too. It was like every, stone, bone, window, door, person, and wonky building was snatching at my mind with long, insistent fingers.
Shinytop said, ‘What do you think?’
I realised I was gripping the staff so tightly around his neck I’d have choked him if he was alive.
By now, the glare was so bad, I could barely see anything. It felt cruel and cheated that, now I was finally outside, I couldn’t see much. Hoping it might ease pressure in my head, I focussed on the greenery.
It made little difference.
I said, ‘I’m going blind.’
Stein Cat said, ‘Your eyes will adjust over time.’
She handed me a pair of dark glasses. Weird, leather framed wraparounds. But I didn’t know what kind of head they were supposed to wrap around, because they were away too big for me. I have to hold them up with both hands, which, in turn, only heightened my suspicion that everybody was staring at me.
I still couldn’t see anything. Panic seized me.
‘Help!’ I cried. ‘I can’t see anything.’
From behind, I heard Stein Cat say, ‘Oh, didn’t expect this.’
Shinytop replied, ‘We should get him back inside.’
And that was that. My first grand view of the City of Bones ended in a blur of colours and embarrassment.
Within minutes, my eyesight was back to normal. After promising to give me the dark glasses ‘before’ we went out again the next day, Stein Cat actually apologised.
Which was a rare thing indeed.
The room zero window had cleared, too. Now it was tinted, and I spent the rest of the day looking out at that fascinating square.
That was how I was introduced to the City of Bones. No fanfare. No drama. No commentary. My two trusty guides (if I could call them that) simply guided me out of the door and left my mind to do the rest.
Not that I saw much that morning.
Had I left the compound midday, the sun would have been higher, and my eyes would have handled it. Once again, even if it had been an accidental slowness that morning, I was being introduced slowly to Dunari.
As crazy as it all was, everything that occurred to me in Dunari up to that point had been a prelude, an intro, the blurb on the back of the book, hinting at what was inside.
Even Ganhook’s fortress was partially based on a mediaeval Irish townhouse. Deliberately so. I can’t explain the full reason for this design right now. It’s a bit of a creative secret. But it was partially designed in such a relatable way to act as a halfway house for travellers entering dunari from Ireland.
So, how do you introduce your world? How can you create a sense of ‘awe’ to keep your audience awake at night thinking about this wonderful place?
Build apprehension first. If you’ve ever visited some majestic building or place, you’ve never just gone there by accident without first knowing something about the place. What did you feel when you first saw it? Did it meet your expectations, or did it disappoint?
And under what conditions did you experience this place?
My first sight of the City of Bones was an anticlimactic disappointment because I couldn’t see it properly. This only challenged and fuelled my imagination, made me long to see more.
If you create the most marvellous city, and drop your audience into it, and go ‘LOOK AT THIS! LOOK AT THAT! LOOK HERE! LOOK THERE!’ They may get so overwhelmed they will draw back. You risk losing them.
(Besides, you have spent ages creating this wonderful place. If you release all in one go, you’ll have nothing left. It’s not some grand one off display. It must be designed to last. And like any other wonder, it needs to keep revealing its secrets on a staged basis.
And like it are not, this places isn’t yours anymore. Creating a city—or any fictitious place—is a joint venture between you and your audience. They will never see exactly what you will see, no matter how richly detailed you describe it.
But if you create a solid foundation (with buildings, roads, rivers, and such), and suggest the rest by hinting by getting them to use all their senses, you engage then more, and their imaginations will fill in the gaps.
If you’ve always wanted to visit pyramids, and you gone to all the trouble of getting to Egypt, you just won’t stare at the pyramids for 10 minutes, take a few selfies, and head for the local falafel place for a meal and a few beers. No. You will explore more. You will seek out things that make the place personal to you, things that are not in any guidebook.
You will want to know what’s round the next corner. Likewise, in your world building, if you drop a hint about what is around the next corner of your city, your audience will be happy to explore, too.
Not been able to see outside of Ganhook’s fortress created the desire within me to know what was there. I was only human, after all. And humans are nosy, curious creatures. The same thing happened when I went outside and failed to clearly see the city of Bones. It only fuelled an intense desire to see more.
And you can do that with your audience, too.
Build the framework, add some details, drop in some hints, and engage their senses. They’ll thank you for it by happily exploring your world further.
Well, that’s it for this episode.
Until next time, Goodbye. Or as we say in Dunari, Dreavik!