Cressida Cowell on how to create your own fantasy world

Published on: 30 January 2018

Cressida Cowell – the top children's author of How to Train Your Dragon – talks about the inspiration for her most recent fantasy book. Turns out that good (and inventive) ideas can start in all sorts of places...

The Wizards of Once is shortlisted for a Blue Peter Book Award

Do some research

Sometimes kids think that ideas get beamed into an author’s head, but actually, many details in The Wizards of Once are either inspired by history, or historical beliefs – you can still do research for your fantasy world. I did lots of reading about the history of magic and folklore to give richness and a feeling of reality to the story.

It is easy to forget how recently people truly believed in magic: for thousands of years, witches and fairies and giants and sprites were as real to people as the laws of physics are to us now. I read many accounts of spirits of the water, such as Kelpies and Bogeymen and Grindylows, or of terrifying menaces, such as Boggarts and Bugbears, and Jack o’Kent, and Black Annis with her iron claws (aren’t these all great names?).

Give past ideas a twist

You can also mix ideas together to create something brand new. Visually, I wanted my sprites to feel original, as if you hadn’t quite seen a fairy looking like that before, so I chose some slightly unusual references, to give them a modern, edgy feel. You’ll notice that they look a bit punk-ish, and if you look up Alexander McQueen’s insect dresses, there are some similarities.

Another example is that there is a long history of witches only being female, and I wanted to invert that. I tried to re-invent what a witch might be, so I gave them bird-like, Fury [female spirits of justice] characteristics with long talons, and jaws that unhinge to swallow you…

Look to books you love

You can also be inspired by your own favourite fantasy worlds. (As long as you don’t copy something directly, and send it off for publication, that is!) I loved the originality of E Nesbit’s Psammead, the sand-fairy, in Five Children and It.

Books that formed a part of my childhood that still affect me today: authors such as Ursula le Guin, Tolkein, L Frank Baum and Diana Wynne Jones. You can pay attention not only to the story, but how the author has made the world real – what details about people and places have they included; what rules are different in their world to ours; what does their world look like, physically?

What do you see around you?

The world around you is a fascinating place, full of stories to provoke ideas.

When I was a child, staying near where my grandmother grew up in Sussex, I used to ride my bicycle on the South Downs. This is an extraordinary landscape, with huge circular Iron Age Hill forts, forests with ancient twisted trees and hills with mysterious mounds. You can see how previous generations may have felt that the land was moved by giants, that the barrows were their graves, and the chalk horses were illustrations drawn by gigantic hands.

It’s a landscape that directly inspired the world of The Wizards of Once, decades later. Writers and illustrators are usually excellent observers, and it’s a useful habit to get into.

Three other helpful suggestions

Here are a few practical suggestions of how to get started with making your own unique fantasy world in fiction...

  1. Draw a map of your imaginary place: maps can be great story starters
  2. If the words are in your head, but it’s tricky to get them down, get an adult to write or type for you
  3. Keep a notebook to write or draw in, as you get ideas. I still use this method – I kept an A3 size sketchbook for The Wizards of Once for about five years. It doesn’t have to be neat

Good luck! Ideas that were in my head when I was nine are still inspiring my writing today, so remember that being a writer can start right now.

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The Wizards of Once

Author: Cressida Cowell

Wish is a girl from a warrior tribe and Xar is a boy from a wizard tribe, living in a world loosely based on Ancient Britain at the beginning of the Iron Age, but where magic is real. A fabulously imaginative, funny and unpredictable adventure. 

Read more about The Wizards of Once

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