I’m a Gamer by Jaleigh Johnson
I had planned to take this opportunity doing a guest post to talk about the experience of writing a middle grade series of standalone books all set in the same world. I still plan to do that. But I realized I was typing this blog post, sipping coffee from a mug with ‘Gamer’ emblazoned on the front, while my husband was in the next room setting up our newest tabletop board game, and the Pillars of Eternity soundtrack was playing in the background. It suddenly became clear to me that any discussion about books and world building probably has to mention my roots in gaming.
I am a gamer. I’m upfront about this at every single school visit I do throughout the year. Almost without exception, the students’ response is an enthusiastic chorus of, “Have you played (insert favorite game here)?” If I didn’t have their attention before, I have it now.
My favorite game growing up was the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game. I loved it because at the time, it was essentially a loose set of rules for operating in a fantasy world, and it allowed the Dungeon Master (DM) to guide the players through their own story. It created a sandbox with as much sand as our imaginations could hold. Every story and every adventure expanded that world, made it richer, more exciting for the players, and made you want to come back again and again.
Fast forward to the present, and I’m still running a game for my adult players, but now I see more clearly the connections between running a great D&D game and building a world for my middle grade readers to connect with.
Most important to me is that the world has to feel alive. Even though my readers (or players) know I invented this place, I have to make it seem like it has always existed, so when they crack open that book or pull out their dice, they’re thrust right in and swept away. In a typical Dungeons and Dragons gaming session, if I describe a menacing tower in the distance, perched atop a lonely hill, my players can choose to go explore that tower, or they might pass right on by and head to the next village. But if I’ve done my job as DM and storyteller, the players will have no doubt that someone or something lives in that tower, and it will still be there whether they choose to go exploring or not.
When I created Solace and it was decided the series would consist of standalone books, I knew that the one constant throughout all three books would be that feeling of the world being lived in. It would grow and change, full of people going about their daily lives whether they were the focus of the story or not. One of the best examples of this happened in THE QUEST TO THE UNCHARTED LANDS when Stella and Cyrus are flying into a fierce storm over the Hiterian Mountains. Cyrus believes the storm is artificially generated, and that there might even be a hidden civilization of people living deep in those frozen mountains. Maybe someday readers will find out if that’s true, or get to explore that civilization, or maybe they’ll come up with their own story to explain that mysterious storm. Until then, they continue on Stella’s and Cyrus’s journey knowing that there are secrets and surprises waiting in my world whenever they come back to visit.
Over the course of the three Solace books, you’ll see politics, war, a tentative peace, exploration, innovation—all through the experiences of different characters that live in the world and that also grow and change based on everything that has come before. That doesn’t mean you have to read all three books in a certain order. You can come into the world at any time and see it through the eyes of a new set of characters. But for those who do complete the series, there will also be connections, secrets—things that draw the whole story together and make the world come alive.
Or at least that’s what I hoped while I was writing. I had no idea if my readers would want to deep dive into this world with me, if they would see it as the sandbox of imagination it was meant to be.
And then I got an email from a student who had just finished THE QUEST TO THE UNCHARTED LANDS and the other two books, THE MARK OF THE DRAGONFLY and THE SECRETS OF SOLACE. She had made a list of bullet points highlighting all the hidden secrets and callbacks I’d placed in the books. She was so excited to confirm that she’d found them all. I was excited too.
Welcome to my world of Solace. I have so many stories to tell you, so many places for you to explore.
Jaleigh Johnson is a fantasy novelist living and writing in the wilds of the Midwest. Her middle grade debut novel The Mark of the Dragonfly is a New York Times bestseller, was chosen for the ABA 2014 Spring Indie Next list, and was named one of Amazon’s Top 20 Children’s Books of 2014. Her other books in the Solace series from Delacorte Press include The Secrets of Solace and The Quest to the Uncharted Lands. She has also written several novels and short stories for the Dungeons and Dragons Forgotten Realms fiction line published by Wizards of the Coast. Johnson is an avid gamer and lifelong geek, and in her spare time she also enjoys traveling, reading, baking, and going to movies with her husband. Visit her online at www.jaleighjohnson.com.