Guest Post & Giveaway: Ellen Jensen Abbott on Verisimilitude

By Ellen Jensen Abbott

I was 50 pages into my first writing project, a YA fantasy novel, when I picked up a book about writing for children.

In the first chapter, the author explained that a new writer should never start with a novel instead of a short story or write fantasy instead of realistic fiction.


But my story had a hold on me and I was not about to stop. Three books and over a thousand pages later, I’ve realized what that author meant. For a beginning writer, it’s hard enough to struggle with character, plot and setting. But fantasy and science fiction require something more—world building.

World-building is a labor of love for any writer, but a novel set in present day Boston begins with a geography, climate, social structure, and government. A fantasy or science fiction writer can set her story anywhere in the universe.

Freeing and exciting, but where do you begin? It’s a rush at times to play the role of god, but the stakes are high. Like characters, worlds need to be three dimensional and ooze verisimilitude.

When I started my current series, The Watersmeet Trilogy, I saved myself some of the angst of world building by setting it in some version of New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

Once I knew I was in the rocky soil of a New Hampshire-like place, I knew my characters were doing subsistence farming or hunting and gathering. Small farms led naturally to villages and towns rather than cities.

With towns came artisans: blacksmiths, wood cutters, tanners, and shepherds. From the first decision about geography and climate, I gained an economy and social structure. My world was fleshing out.

The New Hampshire setting also dictated the flora of my world. My main character, Abisina, is a healer and needed plants for tinctures, teas, and infusions. I picked up Peterson’s Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs, which covers more than 500 plants. Overwhelming—but I was only interested in plants that grew in a northern climate. Plenty of invention was still necessary.

I found what sounded like a delectable root for my dwarves to roast—Solomon’s Seal. But the name “Solomon” threatened to pull the reader out of a world where the Green Man is a central deity. So I renamed the root “Blister root.” No reader will recognize my blister roots as Solomon’s Seals, but basing them on a real plant gave them a reality my imagination couldn’t.

My reliance on Peterson’s Field Guides is only one tool in my world-building kit. I have maps of the land, villages, and my main character’s house scribbled on scraps of paper. I have a calendar with moon phases marked lest all my scenes take place during a full or new moon.

Sometimes that moon has to be gibbous!

I’ve worked hard and had a lot of fun making my world 3D, but I wasn’t prepared for the sense of loss I feel now that the trilogy is complete. Finishing the series means leaving behind my own private Genesis—the Obrun Mountains, the River Couldin, and Giant’s Cairn.

This may be why, in a recent conversation with my editor, I pitched two Watersmeet companions. I don’t want to work on them yet—there’s a cranky fairy demanding to have his story told first—but a time may come in the not too distant future when I’ll want to go home.

Cynsational Notes

Ellen Jensen Abbott thinks that life would be perfect if she could move her home, her job, her friends and her family to the White Mountains of New Hampshire where she grew up.

Until she can convince everyone to join her, she’s content to be writing, teaching English at the Westtown School, and living with her husband and two children in West Chester, PA.

In the Watersmeet Trilogy, readers follow the outcast Abisina as she leaves her village to search for her father and for acceptance.

On her journey, she discovers the whole land of Seldara: the dwarves of the Obrun Mountains; the fauns of the western forests; the centaurs of Giant’s Cairn—some friends, some foes. When she reaches Watersmeet, she thinks she’s found the home of her dreams where all of Seldara’s folk are welcome, but soon Watersmeet’s existence is at risk and Abisina finds herself outcast again.

Can she save the home she loves? Can she unite the land against a gathering evil? Can she embrace her destiny and become the Keeper of Watersmeet?

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win the Watersmeet trilogy–Watersmeet (Skyscape, 2009), The Centaur’s Daughter (Skyscape, 2011) and The Keeper (Skyscape, 2013) and a Kindle Paperwhite. Publisher sponsored. U.S. only.

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9 thoughts on “Guest Post & Giveaway: Ellen Jensen Abbott on Verisimilitude

  1. Thanks for the post, I found it very interesting. I really like those surrealistic covers too. The use of lighting is unusual and that bright, bright blue font is very eye-catching. Thanks again.

  2. Your covers are oriented to female readers. When you were starting the first book, did you target your writing to the female audience?

  3. Patti–I really think it's the world building that separates fantasy (and historical fiction) from contemporary fiction. All fiction has to have strong characterization, a compelling plot, etc. but in fantasy, you have to build the setting from scratch!

  4. Wendy–That is my only disappointment in my covers–that they are so female oriented. Yes, my protagonist is a female, but there are lots of males in the stories and there's lots of adventure. Boys do like these books but may be hesitant to pick them up.

  5. I always find it fascinating to find out how writers create their own worlds. I can imagine how hard it must be to keep everything straight. Thanks for sharing.

  6. This series sounds really interesting. Do you usually have everything thought out about the world, or do you sometimes have an epiphany and add more details ?

  7. Lindesy,

    Definitely epiphanies! I come up with as much as I can in the planning stages, but writing is such a learning process! I don't know what I don't know until I start the writing so then I circle back and add detail, do more research, find some new herb or geographic feature and then keep going. On days when the writing is not coming, doing some research on the world can get the creative juices flowing again.

    Thanks for asking!

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