I once told a roomful of festival-goers the reason I write realist fiction is that I’m lazy. Creating characters and storylines is challenging enough; why complicate things by reinventing the world?
The joke was on me, though, because a short time later, I found myself doing exactly that. As the story that became A Single Stone evolved, it veered quickly away from realism, and as my first foray into speculative fiction it presented me with conceptual and technical challenges that at times seemed insurmountable.
To begin with, I had to make my world believable. For plot purposes, the setting had to be a small, enclosed society, cut off from any notion of ‘outside’ by an impassable ring of mountains. But having limited space implies limitations of other kinds – biodiversity for one, with the towering mountains and harsh winters adding additional complications. What sort of plant life could grow in such a setting? What animals would find habitat there? Would these provide sufficient nutrients for my characters? Are there things in which they might be deficient, diseases they might be prone to? What about other resources: Can they make glass? Iron? Think twice before you hand a man a hammer. Three times before someone stares casually out a window.
But then … how much of this really matters? I don’t want to write about citrus-growing and scurvy and glass-making techniques. Do readers need to know these details in order to keep faith with the world of the story? If they’re not directly relevant to the plot, perhaps mentioning them is distracting, even misleading: Chekhov’s oranges! And since I’ve built the whole world, there’s already so much crucial backstory that adding more exposition feels like a very bad idea. Where is the line between too much information and not enough?
At times, I even thought twice about the language I used. Would a girl who had no concept of ocean, who had never seen a boat, really describe herself as feeling ‘unmoored, cast adrift’? Would she think of nausea as ‘coming in waves’? Might such metaphors have persisted from the days when her ancestors lived outside? How quickly does language change once its referents are gone? And again, always: does this really matter? I reminded myself not to get bogged down in minutiae at the expense of the bigger picture, those basic elements of storytelling that cross all genre boundaries – a character with heart, something important at stake. If those run deeply enough, won’t readers forgive the odd anachronism?
Nonetheless, there were things that did matter. Just before we went to print, I pulled out a reference to hard cheese; there are no goats or cows in the valley, and no magical cheese-making machine. I got so far inside the language of the narrative I almost named a character Sofa, forgetting it was an actual word in English. I’d like to think my editor would have caught that one!
There was a fair amount of teeth-gnashing throughout this process. If only I’d stuck to realism, I reasoned, I wouldn’t have had to worry about any of these things. But it’s not that simple. In many ways, I found that writing speculative fiction just literalised something essential to any narrative regardless of genre – the internal cohesion of the fictional world, which in the end is always a world we create, and whose integrity we have to maintain, whether it’s set in Middle Earth, or a hidden valley, or downtown Fremantle.
Even when we're not literally inventing a world, we’re still inventing a world – for our specific story, for its readers. Even if I set my story around the corner, I still have to determine its borders – what matters, what fits – and ensure the way my characters behave in that particular landscape is natural and true. If a character suddenly uses language that doesn’t fit their voice, or acts in a way that stretches emotional plausibility simply because it serves the plot, I’m breaking the rules of my world; in this equation, “instalove” is the equivalent of hard cheese!
Every element of the world we make must ring true, and that’s as relevant in realism as it is anywhere else; the issues we need to consider may be less obvious, but are perhaps all the more important for that. Writing speculative fiction has made me conscious of the invisible assumptions that are all too easy to make in writing realism. We take so much for granted – why wouldn’t we? We know this world; it’s ours! – but we need to remember that the version we write is still a construct, and one we must build with careful attention to detail if our stories are to ring true.
All that said, I’m relieved A Single Stone didn’t need a setting that was completely ‘other’, that I could at least take some basic principles for granted. I’ve no desire to reinvent the laws of physics; I’m far too lazy for that!
Meg McKinlay is an Australian author and poet. Her work includes picture books, chapter books, junior fiction, poetry and middle fiction. Her latest novel, A Single Stone, is published by Walker Books. Visit Meg's website and Facebook page for more information about her writing and latest author events.