‘Random’ the first book in ‘The Were Chronicles’ triptych of novels, literally started as a short story aimed at an anthology which wanted to deal with “Were” things which were not your generic boring Werewolf – everyone knew about those – how about something different?
So I did something that is fairly rare, out there. I came up with a New Idea.
Now you have to realize that common wisdom has it that there is no such thing as a “new” idea. Every idea, every tale that can be told, has been told already. There are various schools of thought that can distil absolutely everything ever written into The Three, or The Seven, or The Twelve depending on whom you’re talking to. Basic plots and everything depends on what you actually do with those basic ideas.
So yes, Werewolves have been around for… a long time. There are stories about them that only exist on pages hundreds of years old and too fragile for human hands to even touch – or even as no more than oral tales, told by one storyteller to another, the way they were first told around campfires when Neanderthals walked the earth. There are even stories to be found about other Were-critters, as such, if you looked for them although for some reason they aren’t all that common.
But what I came up with – and I honestly don’t think anyone else ever has – is the idea of the RANDOM Were.
In ‘Random’, the first Chronicles novel, I introduce this concept – a Random Were is a Werecreature that may have a basal form – one set at the creature’s first Turn – but Randoms have a wicked twist to this because even with that basal form imprinted, if they are caught out at the wrong place and the wrong time just at the start of a Turn, they will turn into the last warm-blooded creature they see.
You can imagine this can cause quite the drama. My protagonist’s mother… is a Were-chicken… because of an unfortunate farmyard incident when she was very young – her first Turn came early and unlooked for and the last thing she saw was that chicken and not only is she now tied to that as a basic form (she will Turn into that chicken at her time of Turning, barring any other eventuality) but she married a fellow Random who happens to be Were Cat and you can extrapolate from that. What happens if she Turns first and he Turns after? Does the loving husband –as a cat – consider his spouse legitimate lunch…?
I pushed that boat out as far as I could with Jazz, my protagonist, because that is precisely what happens to her – this unfortunate happenstance where she is wrong-timed, wrong-placed at her first Turn, and she changes into something unlooked for, unexpected, and what was thought impossible. This puts a spanner into many works.
Not only is Jazz herself now an inconvenient and explosive secret – but her Turn acts as catalyst for her older brother to take his own – now VERY delayed – Turn into his own hands. Born a Random, just like the rest of his family, he wades into the deep waters of his kind’s history and legend and manipulates events to Turn into a true Werewolf, a Lycan, an aristocrat of his kind, because of ulterior motives of his own.
He needs the help of his best friend, an outlier and “freak” amongst his kindred because he is not true Were (constrained to Turn for three days in every month on the advent of the full moon) but rather a shifter who can Turn into anything he chooses whenever he chooses to do it.
Can you begin to see why this overflowed a short story like boiling-over milk? There was a world here and with every idea I had, every thought I put into it, I was building it deeper, building it higher. I already had various kinds of the Were; they fell naturally into hierarchies (the shadowy Lycans as the aristocrats, the Corvids not far below them, the rest of the various animal kinds ranged below, with the poor Randoms way down on the totem pole. And then another new idea, the New Moon Weres, the ones who Turn at the New Moon rather than the Full Moon.
I now created a world in which such Were existed, suffered to do so under a weight of laws and regulations imposed by the normal, They had to be secured during Turns, locked away either in their own private cages or else in Turning Houses, of very ill repute, controlled by the government.; they had to have special ID cards with a paw print on it declaring them Were and guaranteed to trigger discrimination and mistrust on several different levels. The social and societal tensions, both internal to the Were society and external in the sense of the Were interacting with the normal world, began to weave themselves, and some of them were tight, tight to the point of snapping – and it was my story’s job to break those strands and loose chaos into this world that I had made.
And then I added another layer to all this. The science.
My higher education was in the field of molecular biology and genetics, and I set out to posit no less than a way in which Were creatures could exist in the humanoid context. I created a genetic basis – a very sound genetic basis – on which Were creatures could exist.
My old professor, who supervised my MSc in this area and who subsequently consented to write a foreword to the omnibus edition of the Were Chronicles books, stated that baldly – “The science is as good as it gets,” he said. It is eminently possible. (How do you know you aren’t a latent Were yourself…?)
I used – as a basis, as a bedrock – a world very similar to our own. And then I added in layers. The Were. The social pressures. The science.
In this particular context, for these particular books, I used a Big Truth and then I tweaked aspects of it into Little Lies or Little Improbabilities – and because you already bought into the Big Truth (you had to, you’re living in that very very similar world, you recognize the world I am writing about) you began to accept the Little Untruths, the tweaks, they became part of this new secondary but very familiar world, and you the reader find yourself firmly on your way. The world rises around you.
Because you recognize the buildings – they have the kinds of doors and windows and door handles that you are used to seeing – you trust me, the writer, when you put your hand to a door and step over a threshold into what looks to be just another familiar room. But look again. The dimensions shift around you. There are no right angles any more. The ceiling disappears into sky. The floor beneath your feet doesn’t feel quite solid. You are not in Kansas anymore, but you are here, in MY world, with MY rules, and so long as I keep those rules clear and follow them this world is solid for you now. You are wrapped in it. A part of you understands its viscerally, the parts of it you don’t know or don’t quite ‘get’ are accepted and internalized completely because… the world is built on your truth.
Those are the best “lies”, the ones based on truth. The ones whose underlying tenets you can even prove empirically, like my science. I am telling you what CAN be.
When you hear the word “Worldbuilding” you tend to extrapolate to secondary world building – and we’ll get to that in a different essay on a different book. But worldbuilding onto a primary world, using all the pulleys and cogs and wheels and clockwork of our own existence – the things we see and acknowledge every day – is a perfectly good way to build a world.
You are creating a space where things like bullying, or discrimination, or xenophobia, or fear – all issues that raise their heads in the Were Chronicles – can be addressed in a “safe” space, their lessons taught and learned, bitter truths wrapped in the silver tissue of fantasy so as to be more easily swallowed and better assimilated. Books like this tend to be books of ideas, with everything else built to support those ideas. You have the space to do it – you aren’t spending precious story real estate explaining how a secondary world works – you have all of that built in.
But then you lift the rock or the wallpaper, and you see all the squirming life beneath. It all still takes place on the same ground you walk on, the same wall you lean on – but the life you see, and build, from the things you don’t find until you look for it, is what changes that mundane world into something real and yours, something which you can pass onto readers and make them accept and understand it, because you showed them how. You didn’t ask them to believe a whole different secondary world – the suspension of disbelief is confined to the Little Lies you introduce into their reality – but therein lies the strength of this kind of worldbuilding. They already believe in the fundamentals because they know them. You are asking them to believe just a little more. And that tiny step too far will change their vision of the world for good.
You need to know what things to tweak to accomplish this, of course. Not everything is given to it. But you will soon learn to understand when you have picked the “wrong” thing. Because when you pick the “right” thing to change, the story will blossom for you, and for the reader. You might say, change the right thing about that flower – the shape, the color – and you will reap fruit that is rich and strange and sweet indeed, one bite of which will transport your readers to your world and keep them there, believing.
Now the three novels are coming out in a brand-new Omnibus Edition of ‘The Were Chronicles’ just in time for Christmas. Stay tuned for more information. For the moment, check out my Were page HERE