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For years, when people asked why I wrote historical fiction, I said, “Well, it just seems like all the ideas I get these days are historical fiction ideas!” And then you can guess what eventually happened. I got an idea that wasn’t.

Fast-forward through a pretty intense period of soul-searching, drafting, rewrite after rewrite, adding a new agent to my team, spending a month on submission absolutely terrified no one would buy the book, wailing and gnashing of teeth, etc., the usual writer stuff.

And just days ago, I sent my editor the second pass (post-copyedit) version of my first work of epic fantasy, set in a world called the Five Queendoms. The book kicks off a series currently contracted for three books that I hope will go on for at least five; the world is a matriarchal one, peopled by women both powerful and powerless, strong and vulnerable, angry and placid, vindictive and supportive, nurturing and pitiless. Writing it has been a great pleasure and a painful slog.

And it all came from that first idea: if writing fantasy means we can imagine any world whatsoever, why can’t we imagine one that’s female-default in the way today’s world is male-default, matriarchal in the way today’s is patriarchal? Matriarchal worlds in fiction tend to be depicted as either utopias or dystopias, and I wanted to read a story set in one that was neither, with women in charge simply because that was the way it had always been, unquestioned. The women are heroes and villains, victims and victors. Because why shouldn’t they be?

Writing historical fiction, as I’ve been doing for the last decade, involves a great deal of attention to detail. Discovering, researching and including period detail — not just describing the clothes and buildings of the era, but the way it might have tasted, sounded, smelled — is important to helping transport the reader to the story’s time and place. Writing fantasy is both similar and different. The same types of details still help transport the reader. The difference is that we have far more control over what those details might be, because we’re building the entire world from scratch.

As I built the world of the Five Queendoms, I decided that I would make the most of the opportunity I’d never had before. I could make this world anything I wanted it to be. For years I’d been writing stories about women in the 19th century United States, women struggling to break out of the narrow mold of what femininity meant (and for many people, even in our current century, still seems to mean.) But in fantasy I didn’t have to do that. So I developed a world that didn’t box women into specific roles. That didn’t make them secondary players in some king’s or knight’s or Chosen One’s story. In the world I built, there are no slaves, no prostitutes, no sexual violence. And as an unanticipated benefit, I realized I was able to avoid a number of tired fantasy tropes, simply because the world’s structure rendered them irrelevant — no princess unwillingly married off to a prince for the good of the kingdom! (Actually, no princesses at all, only queenlings, because the entire language is different and -ess endings imply a secondary or lesser status that, in this world, no longer makes sense.)

We can write things in our stories that we don’t like or approve of. No book needs to be all sunshine and rainbows. It’s most obvious in fantasy or science fiction because we can stretch the world to do nearly anything, but even in historical or contemporary fiction, you’re still selecting the aspects of the world you want to include and illuminate. In a sense, we’re all world-building, no matter the genre.

Q: Do you see world-building as a responsibility, an opportunity or both? What are some of the potential complications?

 

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About Greer Macallister

Raised in the Midwest, Greer Macallister earned her MFA in creative writing from American University. Her debut novel THE MAGICIAN'S LIE was a USA Today bestseller, an Indie Next pick, and a Target Book Club selection. Her novels GIRL IN DISGUISE (“a rip-roaring, fast-paced treat to read” - Booklist) and WOMAN 99 (“a nail biter that makes you want to stand up and cheer” - Kate Quinn) were inspired by pioneering 19th-century private detective Kate Warne and fearless journalist Nellie Bly, respectively. Her new book, THE ARCTIC FURY, was named an Indie Next and Library Reads pick, an Amazon Best Book of the Month, and a spotlighted new release at PopSugar, Libro.fm, and Goodreads. A regular contributor to Writer Unboxed and the Chicago Review of Books, she lives with her family in Washington, DC. www.greermacallister.com

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