EVENTS World Building and Rule Breaking

SCBWI member Camilla Chester steps through the secret door to report from Penny Thomas's  inspirational and informative London Masterclass on world building.

Penny Thomas began by telling us a little about setting up Firefly Press in Cardiff, which has a USP of producing quality fiction for 5-19 year olds. The results have been very successful, with its books being nominated for several awards including the Branford Boase, Blue Peter, British Book and Carnegie.

Penny Thomas of Firefly Press.

She discussed the importance of The Way In, stressing the significance of the first few pages of a book to signpost and ground the reader, showing them succinctly and skilfully how the world holds together. If we think of the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, or Platform 9 3/4, we understand what Penny is driving at. Writing a compelling way in is as essential as the world itself. This is how we will get the reader to believe in the world.

SCBWI members at Penny Thomas's world-building Masterclass.

Once they are invested in the story, readers can take lengthier descriptions, but the opening must deliver on so many levels and cannot indulge, as the classics did, in long-winded passages. Penny highlighted some of her own favourite beginnings from classic literature, giving examples from The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by CS Lewis, The Little Grey Men by BB and The Hobbit by Tolkien and comparing them with more contemporary examples, such as Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone by JK Rowling, Incarnation by Catherine Fisher and The Explorer by Katherine Rundell.

She talked about the details that are needed in world building and how, as writers, we are expected to know everything about the worlds we are creating and to be consistent about the rules underpinning it, even if it isn’t all fully explained within the book. Examples of this were: the place itself, the time of year, the flora/fauna, buildings, jobs the characters do, how they talk, objects they treasure, societal rules, class structure, rituals/culture/religions, food, where the money comes from, power source. All of these details need to be fully realised and hinted at using specific, neat details rather than ‘info dumps’.

We were given the opening pages of a first chapter entitled 'Seren Rhys is Freezing' from Catherine Fisher's A Clockwork Crow, and asked to identify what information the author reveals and how. Examples we came up with were: the period in history (the Victorian era — represented by the clothes the characters wore, the third class rail ticket, a real fire in the first class station waiting room etc), the season, the time of day and hints towards Seren’s character. This was all from the tiny details slipped into the text, rather than the writer telling us this information. 

Penny reminded us that overarching everything is always the story: “I’ve seen lots of books where the world is beautifully created but the story could’ve happened anywhere. Know exactly what your character’s place in your world is and how the world itself adds to your story.”

Once we had an understanding of the importance of openings we were set an activity to write our own and share within the class, with a prompt of: A character walks into a room they don’t know. What are they looking for? Penny then moved on to talking about cultural appropriation and the importance of being accurate and authentic in your world-building, particularly if a writer is presenting a culture different to their own. Then she gave us all tips on how to attract the eye of a publisher with our own submissions by sharing some examples of the Author Information (AI) sheets Firefly produce.

The Masterclass ended with a Q&A session, where Penny answered questions about making the language of characters in historical novels authentic (use accurate names of objects rather than jarring dialogue), what Firefly are interested in at the moment (boys' adventure series) and whether they are actively looking for unsolicited submissions (not at the moment, but keep an eye on their website for future opportunities).

Overall the Masterclass was a big success and I have come away with a long checklist for my own WIP, paying particular attention to my opening pages, as well as the message that breaking the rules is fine, but that I have to know what they are first and why I'm breaking them.

* Featured image:
Other pics: Camilla Chester


Camilla Chester is a self-published Children’s Author with three successful books for 8-12s: Jarred Dreams, EATS and Thirteenth Wish. Camilla was shortlisted in the 2015 New Author Prize run by The Literacy Trust and her second book EATS received Highly Commended in Winchester Festival Funny Fiction Award 2018. She is a member of NAWE and volunteers for SCBWI. Camilla writes on commission for Serial Mash and works freelance for the Discover Children’s Story Centre in London. In addition to writing, Camilla has a small dog-walking business and lives with her husband and two children in Hertfordshire, England. You can find out more about Camilla and her books by visiting:


Fran Price is Events Editor for Words & Pictures, the online magazine for SCBWI-BI. Contact her at

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