WRITING FEATURE Lexicons for rich world-building


Many children’s books create alternative worlds — some truly memorable ones are richly developed to draw the reader in. But how do writers create that immersive feeling? Kate Walker shares some tips and ideas.


One effective way to create alternative worlds is using unique lexicons, with terms and words specific to the setting or dialect for that world. Others repeat certain descriptive words to create an extended metaphor, developing the atmosphere of that realm.


Alternative versions of our world that run like clockwork


The Nightsilver Promise by Annaliese Avery immediately sets out a whole belief system that forms the core structure of Albion, an alternative England, fusing magic and science. The characters believe that the universe is a clockwork, Celestial Mechanism created by the Chief Designer. The lexicon stems from this belief system with a life referred to as a person’s track and their stars laid out as their fate inside the bigger Celestial Mechanism that turns in the sky above them.


The protagonist, Paisley is thirteen ‘turnings old’ and there are many clockwork and mechanical similes and references throughout the book.


The cogs of fate had already turned for her and she was about to know what her track held.

Annaliese Avery is so adept at Albion’s lexicon that it extends into her author note, acknowledgements and even her social media. This creates an all-round immersive experience. Albion’s language and parameters are swiftly built in a detailed world different from the reader’s. An imaginative realm complete with electrica energy, aerodoc stations and seven boroughs of London that float above the city, a haven for the Dragon Touched (people with elements of dragon bodies) safe from The George.


Cogheart by Peter Bunzl also uses a clockwork lexicon but in a totally different way to convey mechanisms that bring to life Mechanimals and Mechanicals in a Victorian world, inventions which children would adore in real life. The Mechanicals fulfilling servant roles have appropriately clockwork names, Captain Springer, Miss Tock, Mr Wingnut and the much-loved Mrs Rust. These instantly conjure images of friendly wind-up helpers.


The clockwork and metallic steampunk words are more prolific than screws and springs that filter into speech, like this beautiful farewell line to his master, from Malkin a Mechanimal Fox on a mission with his winding key:


“By all that ticks, I hope I see you again.”


This conveys character and emotion, enriching the preceding pages that brim with steam-fired pistons, metal airships and cogs.


Creating contrasting settings


Crowfall by Vashti Hardy has a lexicon that creates contrasting settings. Time on the island of Ironhold splits the day into uniform decimals, (Centiday, Milliday etc) to convey the rigorous order of the engineered world. This fortified, autocratic island of technology and metal, claims to protect the inhabitants from weather extremes under the guise of efficiency, while the leaders control and exploit the limited output of food growth by the Eard to benefit themselves while the lower ranks scavenge.


The similes and names are metallic and regimented for a structured atmosphere, restrictive as prison. The leader, Commander Forge, even has silver threaded through her plait. The descriptions, “Arms and legs as slender as scaffold poles,” continue the metallic theme throughout all aspects of life, to contrast the main character, Orin’s love of plants and the more ecological way of life on the distant island of Natura. Natura has a softer lexicon.


The leaves at the beach edge seemed to whisper their approval.

All at sea


There are island settings in both The Song of the Far Isles by Nicholas Bowling and Orphans of the Tide by Struan Murray, yet they couldn’t be more different. Both are completely immersive and distinct. The lexicon of Bowling’s ‘Little Drum’ denotes a place of music where everyone in the community plays an instrument, selected by their personality type, which they play together in the local pub to keep their ancestors, ghasts, around in spirit. Song unites them as the heart of their world.


While in the Last Human City in Orphans of the Tide, the bleakness of the craggy barnacled streets is oppressive. A stifling religion of preachers and saints fuel the fear of The Enemy who will destroy them all. This is enforced by the ever present, brutal Inquisition, constantly hunting the Enemy’s vessel, seeing evil omens everywhere. This divides the people with suspicion and malice, keeping the protagonist, Ellie and her fellow orphan Anna, isolated as the city they live in, as they hide Seth, a mysterious boy from inside a whale, from the authorities. The language creates an ‘us and them’, shrouded in sea mist and deception.


The Huntress: Sea by Sarah Driver also has a marine setting aboard a not-quite pirate ship. The crew are united with animal names for themselves, Mouse, Bear etc. Their dialect uses short, hyphenated words to add to the story’s pace and the sea-faring tone with ‘land-lurkers’, ‘sea-spark’ and a fantastical array of creatures from Fangtooths to Merwraiths. These made-up words make sense in the ebb and flow of the prose. The characters speak in an informal way that drags you in by the scruff o’ yer neck and it ent letting ya go! With similes of sea birds, fish and limpets to make you almost smell the salty air and feel the wind on your cheeks.


Lexicons for character speech to world-build


The Shark Caller by Zillah Bethall takes speech quirks further than The Huntress with a glossary of Papuan Pidgin English so readers can understand the unique words Blue Wing uses to describe her world. With ‘bikpela’ for big, ‘liklik’ for little which she uses all the ‘taim’ (time) to bring the vibrance of her community and story to life.


Which is the total opposite of Bearmouth by Liz Hyder. Written phonetically as Newt is still learning letters, in a narrative riddled with references to coinage, candles, prayers and the sounds of the other children snivelling in their dark workplace in mines so far underground it takes half a day to reach the surface. It’s gritty, alien and so compelling as the unique language draws readers even further in!


A big thank you to Vashti Hardy, Peter Bunzl and Annaliese Avery for granting permission to quote their work.

*Header image: Tita Berredo, www.titaberredo.com



Kate Walker is a feature writer for Words & Pictures. She writes MG, chapter and picture books. Kate was longlisted for the Chicken House Open Coop, Guppy Publishing Open Submission and Writing Magazine Chapter Book prize. Kate lives mainly in her imagination, but also in Sussex with her two children who she tests her story ideas on, when she’s not writing about gardening for her day job. 
Twitter: @KatakusM


Gulfem Wormald is Editor of Words & Pictures magazine. Contact her at editor@britishscbwi.org


1 comment:

  1. Both fascinating and challenging! This has opened my eyes to a whole new layer of writing skills for children's books. Thank you.


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