Using the story to explore the world: Benjamin Tate on Leaves of Flame

(KE): Today, a guest post


by Benjamin Tate

HIS novel, Leaves of Flame, is out this week.


Once upon a time I started a novel.  I was in high school, I’d just decided that I wanted to be a writer, and so I tackled a novel (after a few half-hearted attempts at short stories).  I had an idea after all, and I had a map I’d drawn in U.S. Government class, and I could see the world in my head.  So off I went.

Ten years and five drafts later, I had a book.  During those five drafts, the world and the map and the magic fleshed itself out, not to mention I managed to teach myself how to write.  I sent it out and got rejection after rejection after rejection.  Most of those were actually good rejections, saying the writing was good, but the idea behind the novel just wasn’t quite there, not for a debut novel anyway.  It was disappointing . . . no, that’s a lie . . . it was heart-rending, but I sucked it up and started work on other books, other novels, other ideas.

And now, five published novels later, I’m looking back at that initial book.  Why?  Because the current series—in fact, all of the books I’ve written—have been set in that same world.  My first trilogy, the “Throne of Amenkor,” was set at about the same time as that first book, but on a separate continent.  The current series—including Well of Sorrows and the just released Leaves of Flame—is set on the same continent but at a much earlier time period than that first novel.  However, both series are connected to that first book in significant ways.

That’s one of the most interesting parts of writing for me, actually:  how writing one novel ends up churning the creative juices and producing thoughts and ideas that, while not appropriate for that particular book, end up expanding the world in which it is set and often produce new stories, ones that deserve their own book or perhaps their own series.  This is where my ideas come from:  the act of writing itself.  And this is how I worldbuild, letting the world expand and deepen on its own, as I write, all of the intricate little parts coming together to create a much larger, and much more complicated whole.

For example, while writing that first book I introduced a magic that I called the White Fire.  It was a wall of white fire that spread out across the world, touching everyone, changing them.  I also had my characters wandering a museum, which I needed to fill with strange, cool artifacts.  One of those artifacts was a throne that, when approached, appeared warped and caused those near to hear thousands of whispering voices.  Both of these ideas—not important for that first book—combined and gave me the genesis for my “Throne of Amenkor” series.  How would this White Fire affect someone on the other side of the world, someone who had no idea where the fire originated or what it was for?  How would it change them, personally, and what kind of an affect would it have on the society?  These questions piqued my interest and the trilogy that grew out of that became an extension of that first unpublished novel.  It expanded what I knew of the world, because I hadn’t spent much time thinking about the cultures on the other side of the world yet, and it deepened my understanding of the White Fire itself and the consequences of its use.

For my current series, the extension from that first book was a little more blatant, but also harder to deal with.  The characters in that first book were dealing with the actions that their ancestors had taken in the past, those that resorted to the White Fire as a last, desperate act to save themselves.  As the book progressed, I learned more and more about those ancestors, what drove them, and the history of the world I’d created.  That history deepened with each revision, became more cohesive and more complicated, until I suddenly realized that the history itself could be a trilogy of its own!

That’s the series I’m currently writing:  that history.  And I’m finding that as I write, the history that I felt was so detailed before was actually lacking.  Not in facts, but in the character details that make a story come to life.  Those characters don’t always react and behave the way that you want them to, so one of the challenges I’ve run into is letting the characters come alive without having them change the “history” already written.  What I’ve discovered meeting this challenge head on is that history is full of layers.  There’s the rote “this is what happened” history, which is all that I really touched on in that first book.  There’s the “this is why we think that happened” history, in other words, the perception people have of history, based only on what they’ve been told or read.  And then there’s the “this is what REALLY happened” history, where the skeletal outlines of what happened is the same, but the characters who actually created that history have added their own layer of flesh and blood and sinew, making that history come alive.

As I write this new series, keeping that first book in mind and where the world ends up after the events of this story, I find that the world I created way back then has so much more depth than I ever could have imagined.  I’ve also discovered that getting all of the threads of all of the stories and books I’ve written to weave together is not only hard and challenging, it’s also a great deal of fun.  I now consider that first book “research.”  I was using that story to explore my own world, to spend time there and get to know it.  Will that first book ever see print?

Possibly.  The world is full of wonders, after all.  *grin*



Joshua Palmatier (aka Benjamin Tate) is a fantasy writer with DAW Books, with two series on the shelf, a few short stories, and is co-editor with Patricia Bray of two anthologies.  Check out the “Throne of Amenkor” trilogy—The Skewed Throne, The Cracked Throne, and The Vacant Throne—under the Joshua Palmatier name.  And look for the “Well” series—Well of Sorrows and the just released Leaves of Flame—by Benjamin Tate.  Find out more about both names at and, as well as on Facebook, LiveJournal (jpsorrow), and Twitter (bentateauthor).