craft review by Jen Jobart
J.C. Cervantes’ Storm Runner series is a master class in worldbuilding. The world is inspired by Mayan mythology, and the magic is believable and consistent. When you read about the places, you can feel the dampness in the air and smell the rank odor of the Mayan god.
Jennifer shared the secrets of how she does it in a fantastic SCBWI webinar entitled “World-Building 101: How to Scaffold Believable Places for Your Readers.” She’s given me permission to pass her secrets on to you, too.
Use the stories you know
Many of us were raised on the stories that our families and communities passed down through the generations. Jennifer Cervantes grew up surrounded by Maya and Aztec mythologies. She writes:
My grandmother used to speak of spirits, brujos, gods, and the magic of ancient civilizations, further igniting my curiosity for and love of myth and magic.
When Jennifer started to write her own stories, she had this rich culture to draw on. Storm Runner intertwines well-known Mayan gods, like Ah-Puch and Hurakan, with modern, fast-paced fantasy.
Use the mood of places you’ve been
Storm Runner is set in New Mexico – near a volcano. 🌋 Personally, I never knew there were volcanoes in New Mexico. Hawaii, sure, but the desert? Indeed, though, there are volcanoes in Jennifer’s home state, and she was inspired to write about them.
In the webinar, Jennifer talked about Chichen Itza in Yucatan Mexico, which she’d visited several times. There is a cenote (well, or spring) where women and children used to be sacrificed. Whenever she’d visit, Jennifer felt immersed in the eeriness of the place. Later, when she was writing about entering the Old World in chapter 32 of Storm Runner, she tapped into this feeling.
Broad trees stretched toward the cloudless sky, their branches drooping with the weight of spiderwebs that were choking the life from them. It was a strange world–dull, like all the color had been drained from it. The trees, the sky, the earth were all different shades of gray. Other than the dried leaves rustling in the slow breeze, the place was as silent as an old graveyard.
Your setting can be a character
Jennifer mentioned that the setting can act as a character itself. A good example of this is in Chapter 31, when the tunnel they’re floating through suddenly starts to close in on them.
I felt helpless. The water continued to rise. I heard the sound of rusted gears grinding as the walls kept closing in. The air was so thick, it felt like a living thing trying to choke us all.
It’s not just a static place. It’s actively trying to kill them. As readers we’re right there in the boat with Zane, our hearts pounding as the walls get closer and closer.
It’s not just about place
It’s more than setting. It’s about the details, the intricacies of that world. Remember—the world supports the story and everything inside of it. A well-developed world feels real and accessible.
Worldbuilding is the logic of the world. It’s what makes the story seem true, even when we know it’s made up. It’s magic that makes sense. It’s creatures that are horrifying because they could be just around the corner. It’s events that may be inspired by ancient history but feel like they happened yesterday. It’s weaving a new generation of stories from the strong threads of ancient tradition.
Your turn now!
Consider how you might amp up your reader’s response to the world you are building. Try:
- Tapping into the ambiance of somewhere you’ve visited. How can you use that as inspiration for your writing?
- Turning your setting into a character. What language can you add to give your readers a sense that the setting is pulsing with life?
- Sprinkling your work with specific details that give it a truth-like feeling. Can you make each detail count?
Learn more world-building techniques in these posts:
WORLD-BUILDING ISN’T JUST FOR FANTASY/SCI-FI WRITERS by Kristi Wright
Jen Jobart writes middle grade fiction and is always sending characters she loves on dangerous adventures. She is an active member of the SCBWI and has studied writing for children through Stanford’s Continuing Studies program. When Jen’s not writing, she’s outside gardening and raising chickens at her home in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her at www.jenjobart.com.