Yesterday I had to go to jury duty. I knew I wasn’t going to get picked when the defense attorney told a story about trying to bake an apple pie in college. The pie didn’t turn out because he forgot to put shortening in it. Then he said, “DNA is like an apple pie. You can easily contaminate it. And you know, now they have such tiny samples of DNA, a nanogram of DNA. If you knew that not all procedures were not followed, would you not have a problem with it?”
I swear, it was the most convoluted sentence. So I raised my hand and I asked, ‘By procedures, do you mean the scientific procedures or chain of custody?”
And he said, “Procedures.”
And I said, “Please be specific, because if you’re asking me to distrust a proven scientific method, I would need a lot of explanation as to why. Because DNA mapping is not an apple pie.”
So I didn’t get on the jury. I am deliriously happy because it would have been a two week trial.
Dear Ilona Andrews,Bobby
I’m a huge fan of your writing and can hardly wait for the next installment of the Innkeeper Chronicles. I am looking for a bit of advice when it comes to writing fantasy, and because I think of your writing as an excellent example, I figure you might have good advice. How do you explain the magic of the world with enough detail that the reader understands without ruining the magic of the story? I often feel like the line is very blurred and struggle to explain things fully without over explaining. In a similar line of questioning, How do you explain the magic without making it seem like an info-dump? I struggle with both of these things and figured you might have some helpful advice to impart. Thank you so much for your time and I can’t wait for your upcoming books!
You give the reader a bare minimum of information they need to understand the narrative. Just enough so they don’t get lost. Your worldbuilding is an iceberg and the reader only needs to see the part that’s above water. If you absolutely have to have an info dump, try to attach emotion to it.
Some moments in life you remember forever.
One time, when I was five, my parents told me that we were going on a trip. I looked outside the window, at the grey November sky smothered with clouds, and decided that I wasn’t going. My dad brought me a pair of aviator shades, then he took my right hand and my mom took my left, and together we walked down a long hallway deep into our inn. At the end of the hallway an ordinary door waited. We reached it, it swung open, and summer exhaled heat in my face. I shut my eyes against the bright light, and when I opened them, we stood on a street paved with stone. Tall terraced buildings rose on both side of us, and straight ahead, where the alley ran into a street, a current of creatures in every color and shape possible surged past the merchant stalls while a shattered planet looked at them from a purple sky.
There are times when you have to give the reader a necessary information and you can bleed it in small bits. That’s the best way to do it.
And then there are times, when you have to deliver a large chunk of it. Most often it happens when writing the next book in the series. As hard as it is to believe, there are people who will pick up book 10 in a series without reading any others, so you have to account for them. Also, often there is a year between the books, and some readers will have forgotten your worldbuilding and the events of the previous books.
If you have to drop a large chunk of worldbuilding, first, you allude to the information but not actually show it, so the reader is intrigued. For example, prior to the chunk below, Catalina had reported to Linus Duncan without any explanation. She did it right after being in danger, while still covered in blood and gore. This tells us that Linus is very important, but we don’t know why. You have to convince the readers that they want this explanation, then you sit on it as long as you can, and when you finally deliver it, wrap it in emotion. We’ve now waved this Linus Duncan thing in front of them a couple of times, and the readers probably want to know what the deal is.
My phone chimed, announcing a new email. I clicked my inbox. An email from Linus with a video file attached. An enormous file. Linus didn’t optimize the video. I tapped it to download. This would take a while.
“One day you’ll have to tell me what you do for Linus Duncan,” Leon said.
“But then I’d have to kill you, and, as you often point out, you’re my favorite cousin.”
Most of my family had no problem with secrecy. Grandma Frida and Mom both served in the military, Bern naturally kept things to himself, and Nevada was a truthseeker. She could fill her and Rogan’s mansion with other people’s secrets she knew and kept to herself. But Leon and Arabella thrived on gossip. They knew I was doing something confidential for Linus Duncan, but they had no idea what exactly, and it was driving both up the wall.
A century and a half ago, half a dozen countries discovered the Osiris Serum, almost simultaneously. Those who took it could expect one of the three equally likely outcomes: they would die, they would turn into a monster and die after living for a couple of years, or they would gain magic powers. The quality of magic varied: one could have a minor talent, or one could become a Prime, able to unleash devastating power.
At first, the serum was given to anyone brave enough to chance the consequences. Nobody stopped to think that randomly handing people the power to incinerate entire city blocks and spew deadly plagues could be a terrible idea. Then the World War broke out. The eight years that followed it were known as the Time of Horrors.
Lord Acton, a 19th century historian, once wrote that power tended to corrupt. According to him, great men were almost always bad men. Great mages of the Time of Horrors proved him right. They were abominations, who slaughtered human beings like cattle because they felt like it. People died by thousands. Revolts and riots sparked all over the planet. The world caught on fire and when the blaze finally died down, humanity learned three lessons.
First, the use of Osiris Serum had to be banned by an international decree.
Second, the magic powers turned out to be hereditary. Primes beget Primes, leading to formation of Houses, magic families.
Third, the magic community had to find a way to stabilize itself. It was a matter of survival. Even the most capable Prime was vastly outnumbered. If they embarked on a reign of terror, eventually someone would put a bullet in their brain and every lunatic magic user inflamed the general population until they lashed out at anyone with a magic talent. Having achieved power, the Houses now wanted order and safety to reap its benefits.
The Houses came together and instituted state assemblies, where each Prime had voting power. The state assemblies answered to the National Assembly. The National Assembly required someone to investigate breaches of its laws. That’s where the Office of Wardens came in. The Texas Rangers’ official motto was “One riot, one Ranger.” The National Assembly subscribed to that philosophy. There was only one Warden per state, a mage of outstanding power whose identity remained confidential. Each Warden was allowed one apprentice.
Linus Duncan was the Warden of Texas, and I was his deputy. In the past half a year, I had seen things that made me wake up in cold sweat in the middle of the night. And if I shared them with my family, the National Assembly would silence them and me. Permanently.
I became the deputy to keep people I loved safe. No matter how many family dinners Linus attended, how much he doted on us, and how often he invited the entire House Baylor to his ranch and his mansion, if I breached the boundaries he laid out for me, he would eliminate us without hesitation. That’s why when he gave me an order, I dropped everything else and followed.
It starts with “This is dangerous information that can get people killed” and it ends with “This is dangerous information that will get people I love killed.” There is an escalation here and now we let the reader in on super secret info that only Catalina knows. People like secrets. Make them feel special by telling them one.
- Delay as long as possible
- Bleed it in in small chunks
- If you can’t, attach strong emotion to it
Best of luck.