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Worldbuilding at the Natural History Museum

Written by Cora Carmack

When I set out to write Roar, I knew I’d set myself a bigger writing challenge than I’d ever undertaken. I’ve been coming up with cool fantasy book ideas for a decade, and I’d even dabbled in writing them. But I’d never developed an entire world from scratch. Tor Teen bought my book on proposal, and I can remember during the drafting process thinking they were crazy to let me do this without any proof that I could actually do it. So I took my world-building very seriously. I sat down and drew multiple versions of my own map– one with cities and territories, one with biomes and climates, and one with storms. I did tons of research, but in the end, the thing that I found most helpful in building the world of the Stormheart series was something I stumbled upon by accident.

It was April of 2015, and my parents were visiting me in NYC for the first time. We did all the typical touristy stuff, and one day we ended up at the Museum of Natural History. I was in the plotting and planning phase of Roar, and as I wandered through the various exhibits on different cultures from all over the world, it began to influence the way I thought of my own fictional world.

I looked at the valuables that different cultures preserved, the things they left behind that allow us now to infer things about their lives. And I began to think about what might be left behind of my world, what the characters in it might cherish. I thought about what it might be like to live in a land oppressed not by a government, but by nature itself. And I worked backwards, bit by bit, to piece together a complete culture. I imagined ruins of cities and monuments built to gods for protection from storms. I thought about superstitions and folklore and children’s songs. I thought about what kind of technology they might develop and how much or how little communication there might be between cities. I thought about what kind of artwork and literature would exist in such a place.

I literally pulled inspiration from different cultures all over the world. I treated my Stormlings like the Pharaohs of Egypt, as if they were one step below gods themselves. I took the idea of ceremonial headdresses from tribal cultures and religions and the importance they placed on different life events, because in a world so violent, I imagined that each milestone of life felt like a victory. And when I wandered into the Hall of Gems and Minerals, one of my biggest concerns in regards to world building practically fixed itself. I’d known that I wanted my storms to have tangible centers, or hearts, but I hadn’t figured out what that would look like. Walking through that hall, I began to picture the hearts of storms manifested as brilliant crystals and gems, and something clicked – these were my stormhearts.

So if you’re brainstorming and planning a fantasy novel, I highly recommend checking out a history museum. Wandering through the museum helped me truly create my own unique world, rather than patterning it off one specific time or place in history. Also… I always wanted to be an archaeologist as a kid, and exploring and “excavating” for a fictional world is probably as close as I’ll ever get – and it’s far less dusty.

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