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Interview with Del Law: World Building and Character Building in Beasts of the Walking City


Recently I had the opportunity to read Del Law’s debut novel, Beasts of the Walking City, and between the world-building, the characters, and the hard-driving plot, I was engrossed from beginning to end. Since I know Law, I asked him if I could interview him for this site, to get a better idea of how he pulled off this surprising and entertaining story. He agreed, and here is that interview.

Del Law can be found online through his blog, House on Bear Mountain.

Del, what immediately jumps out at me about Beasts of the Walking City is the huge amount of world-building–actually, worlds-building might be more accurate, since the story takes place in a world that overlaps with a number of others. You’ve created geography, very distinctive types of magic and combat, multiple political groups, various kinds of sentient beings, cities, and history behind all of it. Where did the world of your story come from, and how did it get so detailed and layered?

I’m dying to say I found it all behind a back door in an alley somewhere in Hoboken, but no: I’ve been developing Blackwell’s world for a long, long time, almost as long as I can remember.  I played role playing games in elementary and early high school and caught the world-building bug then–as a teen-ager I covered walls of my room with maps and sketches of worlds and characters.  I bet if I were able to find those maps and dig some of them out, that aspects of Kiryth would be in them, though it’s grown and changed and morphed many, many times since those years.  Versions of some character showed up in my undergraduate writing thesis, but even then they were very early versions, written about by a writer who (I think) was still working to find a voice.

I daydream when I can.  I try and look at things from strange angles.  When I travel I try to find small details that imply a whole lot more behind them.  I watch my kids and how they see their world.  I try and write it all down and layer it in somehow.

So much modern fantasy is based on our own history here on Earth, and for good reason–it’s a shared reality we all know parts of, it’s easy for a reader to connect to, and by reading or writing books set in different aspects of our world, we all learn more about the world while enjoying a good story.  Plus, it’s easier as a writer to not have to make everything up, and if someone’s writing on a deadline you need to get your book done.

But with Blackwell’s world I didn’t want to do that.  I wasn’t on a deadline, and I wanted to build something from the ground up, something unique, with characters that feel vivid and real and embedded in social and political contexts as we ourselves are.  I wanted it to feel real and dirty and as messed up as our own world often is, not simple and contained.  I suppose I cheated a bit by then connecting it all with Earth, but by doing that I got to layer some of our history and details up against the ones I made up, and I think that gives the histories and the characters even more a sense of ‘real-ness’.

At what point did your main character, Blackwell, emerge, and how did you create or develop him?

Blackwell emerged over time, really, and for such a big guy he was pretty quiet about it for a while.  I know some writers say they have characters that stick in their heads and sort of lead the story along–not me.  I knew I wanted to write from a non-human perspective, since that doesn’t happen very often, and plus it’s a nice way to bring in more detail about the world.  But all the standard fantasy races were out for me–overdone, not much room left for originality.

So along came the Hulgliev.  Aspects of them came out as I was working through the drafts: once a pretty big deal, now pretty rare.  Hated by many–but why?  There’s a mystery.  They can pigment themselves like a squid does–that’s pretty cool.

But if the book was going to work, Blackwell really had to stand out with a strong voice, and he had to be someone that you could relate to, and not all-powerful or all-knowing.  I rewrote big sections of the book and things started appearing.  His really bad childhood.  His complex family structure.  His fondness for bourbon and noodles (things I can relate to).  His impulsiveness and poor self image and general naiveté.  His desire for something better for himself and his friends.  All of these things emerged as being pretty central to how the plot plays out in the book, so there was a lot of juggling to manage it all.  I rewrote a lot to try and get it right.

In the end, for me, he was fun to spend time with, as was Kjat, the woman who’s in love with him (though he’s pretty blind to it).  I hope they’re both intriguing for readers, too.

So Blackwell emerged in rewrites, a little at a time. I’ve had that happen myself, but it’s not an approach we hear talked about much, even though it seems here to have been pretty successful. Did other important elements of the book present themselves in the course of rewrites as well?

Del Law

Yes, completely.  Al Capone came late, and he’s pretty critical now, but early drafts didn’t have him and I think the story was more limited as a result.  Fehris, one of the important secondary characters, became not-quite-human as drafts progressed, to make him more compelling.  Some of Kjat’s backstory, and how that’s tied to Blackwell’s life, came later.  A lot of the smaller details that give the world a broader context tended to come later, too:  the Singing Dragon of Barakuu, or the Bakarh Contest of Symmetry, say.  This book doesn’t go into them in any detail, really, but the fact that the reader hears of them, knows that there’s something with this kind of mysterious name to it is out there, makes the world feel bigger.  (Unless you overdo it, and then there are just too many names and details flying around.)

Some of this comes from me knowing my own strengths and weaknesses, and how to work around them–I’m less great at plot, so I try and work that out first.  I’m better at description, so knowing that, I can give myself the leeway to push this off a little while I get the plot pinned down.  But then there are cool ways that descriptions interact with and affect the plot–you have to be perceptive enough to roll with that, even when it means a lot more work to get it all right.

The Amazon reviews so far have been overwhelmingly positive, but it’s notoriously hard for new novelist to get much attention for a new book. What future do you see for the Walking City series? What are the chances of a seeing a sequel in the next year or three?

I think there’s a great chance of another book.  I’m working on it now, though it’s hard to say how long it’ll take.  I don’t want to rush it out and have something I’m not happy with.  But there’s a lot in Blackwell’s world that I didn’t touch on in the first book.

Funny, your question came in the middle of a big promotion weekend I’m running on for Beasts.  The book was available for free, and was on the top 10 lists for both free Fantasy and free SciFi, and closing in on the top 100 overall free books for Kindle.  Hundreds of people were downloading it every hour.  For me, that’s totally cool, great publicity, and I think Amazon’s created a great opportunity for early authors to get their work out there. [Note from Luc: As of this writing, Beasts of the Walking City remains in the top 10,000 Kindle books, outdoing a great many novels released by traditional publishers.]

Will it make a ton of money?  Probably not this month.  But that’s ok for me right now.  I’d rather get Beasts out into the hands of readers, give them a chance to get interested in the series, and that’ll give me even more reason to write more of them.  Unlike writers who are working for a big publishing company, I can afford to be patient–my book isn’t competing for bookstore shelf space, doesn’t have just a few months in which it has to sink or swim.  Beasts can gain an audience slowly, over time, and that’s just fine.  I’ll be working on the next book, and the one after that.

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