The novel I’m currently writing for Harlequin Spice, tentatively titled The Duke and The Pirate Queen, is a sequel to my first book for the line, titled The Duchess, Her Maid, The Groom & Their Lover.
The books are set in a fantasy world that’s loosely based on our own; the cultures depicted in The Duchess were mostly similar to eighteenth-century Europe, but the characters also visited a more cosmopolitan, Mediterranean land with elements of several centuries and countries. In that novel, I introduced Captain Leung, a mercenary ship captain employed by Lord Maxime. At the time, I had no firm ideas for her homeland, other than that it would have elements of the Chinese Empire of the fifteenth century, which I’d been reading about in Gavin Menzies’ 1421: The Year China Discovered America. Also, I planned for her to be mixed-race.
Here’s a description of Captain Leung: “A bald woman stood in the doorway, her scalp completely decorated with blue and white and red designs; tattoos…Below, her feet were bare, exposing more swirling tattoos. She was the tallest woman he had ever seen…Her eyes…were a startling, mossy green, like sunlit water, contrasting starkly with her honey-colored skin.”
Though she had a role in the plot, it was a secondary one. However, I had created her intending that she would, eventually, end up marrying Maxime, another secondary character. (Yes, the dreaded Sequel Bait!) Because she was a sea captain, I couldn’t resist putting her into a plot full of elements from classic pirate novels and sea adventures.
Because the novel is set in a fantasy world, I’m using a different approach than I would for a historical novel. I’m building the plot — and the world – in tandem. Elements of Imena’s character exist because they are useful to the plot as well as interesting to the reader. Some aspects of the world she lives in exist because they create barriers against her goals, and Maxime’s.
It’s been a synergistic process. The purpose of the novel was for Imena to marry Maxime. What barriers would stand in their way?
I began with two elements. First, she had been a pirate or a privateer. Second, her father had come from a distant land. I chose privateer (in government pay) rather than pirate (freelance) because it seemed like a more honorable role, and one that could be more easily resolved at the novel’s end. However, while being a former privateer is an excellent job qualification for working as Maxime’s spy, it could be a flaw for a future duchess and thus a plot complication. The king who ruled Maxime, in particular, could be unhappy that she’d been chosen. This became the major exterior blocking element of the story: someone is actively trying to prevent Maxime from marrying outside the kingdom.
I also knew that Imena was of mixed race. I chose to utilize this as both exterior and interior conflict. The exterior, again, was easy; Imena is a foreigner, which might be a conflict of interest if she became involved in the politics of Maxime’s duchy. For even more exterior conflict, I went back to her homeland. What if the empire in which she’d been born was prejudiced against foreigners, and marrying foreigners? What if her marriage prospects at home were also limited because of her foreign father? From that idea, I worked backwards and created laws that would limit both her and her children if she stayed in the empire and married there, giving her a reason to want to marry Maxime aside from her desire for him. I thought more about her father and mother, and how their experiences as a mixed couple would affect the ways in which they attempted to find a husband for their daughter. I also considered how their choices would conflict with Imena’s, and how she would feel about this, and how all of these elements could be thematically important.
As I progress in writing the novel, I expand on these ideas, weaving them in and out of the “action” plot, which is rife with tropes of sea adventure novels. I give more depth to the tropes in ways that enhance the main relationship plot: the pirates abuse their prisoners because they are pirates but also to intensify Maxime and Imena’s emotions for each other. A storm moves the plot in a new direction, but how the characters deal with its effects also provides a vehicle for more emotional interaction.
Essentially, I am making up the details of the world as they’re needed in the plot; but I’m also creating details that support the plot as well, and generate new aspects of the plot. It feels a bit like juggling, if I could juggle for more than about two seconds.
Related posts: Researching Pirates. Ann Aguirre on Worldbuilding. Thematic Worldbuilding in The Duchess, Her Maid, The Groom and Their Lover. Synergy in Writing and Research. Historical Detail in Fiction.
Here’s an excerpt from the opening of The Duke and The Pirate Queen.
This post was originally written for Michelle Lauren’s Fiction That Defies Boundaries Blog.