I suspect for most authors and most books, the answer to this question is that the story created the world. Or perhaps a more accurate description would be that they “informed” each other. Regardless, the world is built to house the story. There are many strengths to this approach. For example, it allows for a great deal of focus. Since the world exists for the story, all creation is concentrated on the singular events that span the pages of the novel (or the series). This allows for an incredible amount of potency between the beginning and the end. The epic ending of the novel is also, in many ways, the conclusion of that world as well. This isn’t to say that sequels can’t exist. They can and they do. But it does mean that the sequel is going to have to work extra hard to match that which came before. Some authors have pulled it off, and quite successfully. Others, less so. Many authors, admirably, create a new world for each new novel or series.
For me, however, the world came first. In another article, I plan to tell the story of the creation of Isfalinis… that is, its external creation rather than its own cosmology. If you’re interested in the cosmology, the first part has already been posted as “A Treatise on Creation and the Lost Age, Part I.” For purposes of this discussion, I’ll just say that designing Isfalinis began three years before I started working on my first novel. Isfalinis was thirteen years old when my early ideas for “Tears from Iron” took shape.
That means I already had a history. The first novel I wrote is actually set long after “Tears from Iron.” That means I knew what the world after “Tears” was like even before I started planning it. This created certain restrictions. I couldn’t have a world-ending moment like at the end of Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time.” Even J.R.R. Tolkien, perhaps the ultimate world-builder, had more options for his “Lord of the Rings” because that saga ended Middle Earth’s age of fantasy to usher in the modern age of “Man.” But neither of these worlds could handle a sequel because there are, quite simply, no more stories to tell (prequels, of course, are another matter, but for simplicity I’ll avoid them in this article). In my place, “Tears from Iron” is set towards the beginning of Isfalinis’ chronology. Unlike so many books which have some sort of cataclysmic event in their distant mythos, “Tears” is set in amid its Cataclysm. This closed a lot of doors for me, but it opened just as many.
In many ways, a World-first or Story-first approach depends on the kind of tale you want to tell. I’ve already discussed the merits of a Story-first model above. For myself, I want my readers to know that my novels are just the tip of the iceberg. The adventure has only begun and Isfalinis is full of opportunity. I want my readers to sense that the Syraestari Empire is one period in the long history of Isfalinis, just as the Persian, Roman, Mongol, Incan, and British Empires all had their rises and their falls. And don’t forget that there are far more books set in our own open-ended world than all the fantastical ones combined. How many epics can be found in our own history? Leonidas and his 300 Spartans happened. Sure, it wasn’t exactly as Hollywood portrayed it, but the story is real. Julius Caesar with his epic conquests, seizure of power, and ultimate assassination was real. Boudica and her revolt were real. As were Richard the Lionhearted and Saladin and so many others. I feel like I’m being neglectful simply stopping the list there.
Another appeal to me for the World-first option was my love of history. This can actually manifest itself in either path. I have no doubt that many authors who create separate worlds for each of their stories are also inspired by history. The draw to me, though, isn’t just taking a single event even if it is built upon a culmination of all the events that preceded it. That’s pretty much how all stories are constructed. But I wanted the world of my story to be larger than that. Not a culmination of a single event, but a broader tapestry with ten thousand moments, each building into all the moments that follow. Certainly there are focus points, and around those culminations stories are born, but that isn’t all there is. There can be beauty in the smaller moments and how they reach through history like tiny ripples in a pond.
“Tears from Iron” is the first book of the series, “Memories of the Cataclysm,” but this isn’t a normal series. Each of the books are intended to stand apart, yet linked. The second book of the series is set centuries later. The final novel will be centuries after that. To be honest, the motivation for this was both practical and poetic. On the practical side, I didn’t want to write a sequel that I couldn’t pitch to agents and publishers as its own complete work. As it turned out, that was unnecessary. But on the poetic side, it allows for a different kind of series. It is a series as much about a people as it is about the individual heroes and villains who span its pages. One generation leads into another. Indeed, the ripples of “Tears from Iron” flow outward even to that first book I wrote all those years ago. One day, I may return to it and try to bring it up to a publishable standard. Whether I follow that course, or move onto new projects after “Memories of the Cataclysm” has come to a close, you can be certain that threads will link them all, even if the events are set a thousand years before or a thousand after.