The original idea for my debut novel, a dark, gritty epic fantasy called Melokai, came when I was trekking in Nepal’s Annapurna Sanctuary and I started to daydream about a country surrounded by mountains and ruled by women. The trek took eleven days up and down, hiking for seven hours on some days, so I spent a lot of time in my head and a story formed.
One of the critical parts to my thinking was about this country (which I named Peqkya) and about the wider world it was situated in. It was important to me that Peqkya was a country which could actually be real, which could survive and function, and wasn’t one dimensional.
To do this, I focused on six things:
- Basic infrastructure
- Ok, but do they like art?
- What does Peqkya look like, smell like, sound like, feel like, taste like
- Not every Peqkian thinks the same
- Why has the sh*t picked this time to hit the fan?
Let me elaborate…
So, I have a country set high in mountainous plains and surrounded by mountains. First things first, how do they survive? What is the basic nutrition, shelter and clothing?
The food was based on what I had eaten when I was travelling in Nepal, and what I had seen growing on the terraced farms on the mountain foothills. For example, rice, lentils, wheat, potatoes. They also grow some fruit, as well as tend livestock such as yaks, buffalo, sheep, goats and poultry. I also ate a lot of honey and with some research discovered that honey hunting is an ancient Nepal art, where brave Nepalese scale overhanging cliffs with rope ladders to harvest honey from huge bee nests.
The Peqkians eat spicy lentil and goat stew with rice and flatbread, drink hot lemon, ginger and honey. They also have fish from the freshwater lakes and enjoy wine that has been imported from a neighbouring country called Fertilian.
The majority of Peqkians live in simple wooden huts or dome-shaped tents (similar to that of the nomadic Mongolians) and there are a few larger buildings in the capital city of Riaow, including the House of Knowledge and the Melokai’s apartments. There is no glass, although their neighbouring country of Drome produces it, and the windows are sealed with inside and outside shutters. They have fireplaces for warmth and decorate their buildings with colourful natural paint, flags and wooden carvings. The rooms are plain but comfortable with wood panelling and wooden furniture as Peqkians don’t tend to value expensive, ostentatious things but more functional items.
They use sheep and goat wool to weave cloth, animal skin and furs from foxes and rabbits as clothing. It’s a cold place, although the summer sun can warm the lower valleys, and all Peqkians have cloaks of thick animal fur or heavy wool, and leather boots.
Secondly, how do they get around? From my experience trekking up mountains and through mountainous regions, I know that travel on foot can be done! (I’ve completed the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru, summitted Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, as well as the Annapurna base camp trek). Industrious humans can always find a path over or around a mountain, and the Peqkians are no different. They also use yaks in the higher places and water buffalo in the lower, as well as donkeys and the short, stocky horses that are adapted to low temperatures and hard work – these are known as Mongol horses.
Thirdly, how does this society make money, trade, do business? The economy of Peqkya was also important to think about. How can it be a thriving country without money changing hands? The Peqkian society is fair in that all are given food, shelter, clothing, a job and this is organised by the Melokai and her counsellors. Peqkians are expected to provide a quota to the Melokai, be it livestock or crafts, which is then equally distributed amongst everyone before the excess is used for export. Anything leftover can be traded, for example smaller items can be swapped for other items of a similar value. So smaller farmers or skilled crafts people can exchange goods e.g. a bag of potatoes for a chair. Any larger items can be exchanged for money, but this is rare. The majority of the Peqkian trade agreements with other countries are based on a product swapping system. Money does change hands, but there is little greed or hoarding, and the Melokai’s council pays in coin for the public infrastructure and facilities.
The why and how Peqkya came to be a matriarchal society and the structure in place to allow them to continue their control was interesting to devise. I decided there had to have been a huge event in its history that sparked this female dominance and inequality.
Peqkya is a relatively new country, only one thousand years old. Before it was Xayy. I imagine Xayy to be like Mongolia in Genghis Khan time – many nomadic tribes dotted about the land enclosed by the mountains, led by men who pillage, rape and raid and exist in violence. Eventually the tribes made allegiances and formed two huge, male armies to settle all their land and honour disputes once and for all. They came together for an epic battle only to be turned to stone by the magic of one woman, Sybilya, who was fed up of all the bloodshed, and of all the men.
Sybilya ushers in a new rule with all the women left behind and to ensure males never become powerful again, creates a system whereby only a certain number are allowed to live past fifteen. This specific event, and the life of Sybilya, will be told in my next trilogy, which I’ll start writing when In the Heart of the Mountains is finished. You can learn more about Xayy warriors in my novella The Fall of Vaasar, which is set two thousand years before Melokai.
I also plotted the history of Peqkya’s relationship with their neighbours, for example the Wolf Expulsion which happened in Year 700 and the Troglo trade agreement which happened five hundred years before current events. And why Peqkya and Fertilian are on friendly terms, and Peqkya and Drome not so much – this event is detailed in The Fall of Vaasar.
Thinking so much about the history and the major events means I have a bank of ideas for stories based in this world. As well as the Sybilya trilogy mentioned above, I have planned another four novellas. One of which, The Sand Scuttler, should be out in 2018 and details the character Jakira’s early life in Drome.
Ok, but do they like art?
When imagining my world, I not only spent time thinking about the basic infrastructure and history but also about what the Peqkians like doing, what are their hobbies, how do they spend their free time when not slogging away on the farm or weaving wool. Until I decided whether or not they appreciated art, I didn’t feel like I really knew them!
So, in answer to that question – yes, they like art and yes, they create paintings, wood carvings, instruments and tapestries purely for pleasure. Their recreation includes their daylight dances, a series of movements similar to yoga, as well as swimming and lounging by Inaly Lake outside of Riaow. They sing, dance, write poetry and star gaze.
The natural world is very important to them and they study it carefully, making notes that are collected in the House of Knowledge, which is also a library. They are more into simple pleasures rather than luxury.
Oh, and they love cats.
What does Peqkya look like, smell like, sound like, feel like, taste like?
It was important for me to imagine all the little things when I was planning my world. Would the Peqkians smell or would they be sticklers for personal hygiene? What would the city of Riaow sound like with all the cats that lived there, what do people touch, are their clothes soft? Apart from the food, what other tastes are there – like fresh air or pungent smells that catch on their taste buds.
I asked myself these questions, both at the start and as I was writing when certain scenes demanded intricate details. I decided that Peqkians like to be clean, and there are public baths and washer-peons who bring fresh water to the Melokai’s apartments. The cats are noisy, vocal and each morning Peqkians wake to the sounds of cats trilling their morning chorus rather than birds. The people are master weavers and produce some of the finest cloth, with soft and smooth textures, as well as rough goatshair. The Peqkians also excel in cultivating herbs and plants for healing, producing ointments and potions in the medicinal quarter which has an intoxicating fug permanently hanging over it.
I think that readers appreciate these intricacies, I know as a reader I do, as it helps bring them closer to the setting, to the action, to the characters going about the daily business. It brings the world alive and touches on all five senses.
Not every Peqkian thinks the same
Do you, your mate, your sibling, your parent, your grandparent all think the same? All have precisely the same opinion on politics, religion, right and wrong, how to live your life? I’m guessing not – and neither do the people who live in my world.
The Peqkians rub along well, but they do not all think the same. The Melokai and her counsellors have differing opinions on the best course of action to take, on how to punish offenders. One courtesan’s opinion of Ramya is completely at odds with an assistant trader’s opinion. Some of the lowly peons are not happy, some completely accept and get on with their lives.
And it is the same for the races in Fertilian, Drome, Zwullfr – they are not robots, they are individuals. Wouldn’t it be dull if everyone thought the same. The tension comes from disagreements, the excitement comes when those disagreements become explosive.
Why has the sh*t picked this time to hit the fan?
I spent a long time considering this. I knew what I wanted my action to be and how and where it would take place and what characters would be involved, but then I worked backwards and thought, why now?
There are many reasons, all connecting together to kick off at this time. Without giving too much away, it is to do with people and the choices they make. For example, Jakira is a powerful woman in Drome with two sons. She’s reached the peak of her power in Drome and is now looking to widen her tentacles to seek bigger glory further afield. She’s a devoted mother, so her sons will share a piece of that glory. The peons, the lowly male underclass in Peqkya, have been granted a little respite by Ramya, who is trying to be fair to her people. But rather than be thankful, it has stirred up their feelings of resentment and disillusion.
There are also hints to the natural world evolving, for example the scholar Chaz mentions that every year the ice cover on the lake lessens. Then there are the changes in the anatomy of the wolves and the ‘issues’ with the Trogr race back in the caves.
And lastly, it is to do with the magic in the world, which in Peqkya is embodied by the ancient Sybilya. The magic is waxing and waning and this, of course, causes problems.
The worldbuilding involved imagination, research and careful thought, but it was also hugely enjoyable. Now I have created this world, it feels very real to me and I have numerous ideas for stories set within it. I can’t wait to start writing them – and I can’t wait for you to start reading them!