Creating backstory for a novelist is a challenge. Creating backstory for a tale about travelling back in time to the origins of a city of one’s own invention requires a bit more effort.
The Timearang Pirates, the working title of the second novel in my current series The Inventors Daughter , is such a story. I don’t want to give too much away, so let’s suffice it to say that Erin Isabelle, my eleven-year-old protagonist, goes back three hundred years – to the founding of the city – to fix something broken in time.
Fortunately, I had laid a few breadcrumbs in the first novel. In The Inventors’ Daughter I more or less felt my way through the story with my eyes closed, for I didn’t know the characters or the setting. I just knew it would be a fantasy novel for kids.
The characters came quickly. I started with a clever, sensible girl who keeps her inventor parents from wrecking their city with their creations. Their being professors required teachers, students and deans. As there was an invention to finance, I needed a financier. Being a crime story necessitated criminals and someone (a reformed wicked uncle perhaps) to help my hero catch them. Bingo, I had a deck chairs filled with characters.
Setting was another matter. Having originally placed the tale in New York, I found myself struggling with its geography. I went to college there for eighteen months, so I knew the city reasonably well. But I was warned by others that I should be very accurate lest those who knew the city much better – like the majority of people in the publishing industry – would be put off by my likely gaffs. I mentioned this to my professor at the University of Washington. Without looking up from her work, she flicked her hand dismissively and said, “Make up your own city.”
Everything changed from that moment forward.
The city became Dream City. It was an appropriate name for of noir story. This was a book that many kids would read at night before they went to sleep. “The City of Dreams,” would be the motto of the city. Central Park became Morpheus Park, named after the son of the god of dreams. Gods made me think of the 18th and 19th centuries founders of the city whose education would have been steeped in Greek and Roman mythology. It was also an era of scientific curiosity and very dark nights in which to study the heavens.
Astromomy is the study of stars and planets, so why not have references to them in the city itself? Like New York, Dream City would be a grid of north-south avenues and east-west streets. So, I named the avenues after the planets and constallations; the streets, after stars (with some exceptions for historical purposes).
Most significantly, being a world of my own invention, I could place Dream City wherever I wished. I chose to build it across three islands a foggy mile off an unnamed continent. I made the shapes of the islands astronomical: Star, Moon and Comet – all of which were created from a circle, the negative parts of which were submerged. I made up a native legend about how they fell from the sky. To keep the references in the city straight, I created three maps. One from the discovery of the islands by Europeans ( Pirate Map ), a modern map on the same scale ( Modern Map) and a detail of the central island ( Modern Map Detail) .
Now, before jumping into the second novel, I must create the details of the founding of the city. For it is into that moment that an interloper has leapt, disturbing the future for Erin, her inventor parents and The City of Dreams.