Building Tulay: Researching the World of DragonChild

Gill Vickery

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My main aim in writing the DragonChild series was to present children with an active, courageous heroine who did not need male characters to rescue her from danger. She was not going to wear pink and she would definitely not be a princess. Tia quickly sprang to life; small, tough, resourceful; a good horsewoman and an adept with a sling. She was taken hostage by dragons after her evil High Witch aunts stole the DragonQueen’s jewels of power and was raised in ignorance of her own mother’s part in the theft. When she discovered the truth, she determined to recover the jewels and return them to their rightful owner. Once Tia had made herself known, I needed to build her a world and if I was going to make it believable, I needed to do research.

Why bother with research for a fantasy world? Surely you can make it up as you go long. It’s possible, it has been done. But, as Mary Hoffman said at the 2005 Oxford CWIG Conference, in her workshop on Creating Secondary Worlds, ‘It is necessary to build a secondary world even when writing “realistic” stories,’ and besides, ‘all fiction is fantasy fiction.’

As a starting point I chose the mythical land of Thule that ‘…lieth sublime/Out of space – out of time.’1 Although the ‘real’ Thule is a now a US military base in Greenland other countries claim to be the fabled northern land wreathed in sea fret and mystery. 2

I decided on Iceland with its spectacular landscapes of volcanoes, geysers and waterfalls. Research revealed the history of its ancient forests almost obliterated by Vikings after their invasion in 874. Setting Tia’s adventures well before then left her free to roam in dense woodland.

I was more inventive with wildlife and allowed bears, lynx and snow leopards which don’t live in Iceland as well as arctic foxes which do. I also had an unreliable jackdaw named Loki (what else could he be called?) and a vital plot point hung on whether or not jackdaws have a sense of smell. I had no idea. I needed to do more research.

Names should sound convincing, which completely invented ones never do, so I based the ones in this world on Icelandic. The town of Drangur for example, is built on an isolated column of rock which is what the word literally means. A taciturn Beastmaster is called Tryg, a suitably tough name adapted from the Icelandic Tyrggvi. Outsiders have names derived from other languages: ‘Tia’ is Italianate as her father, Elio, is from ‘over the Southern Sea’ while the nomadic Traders have Gypsy names such as Zora and Hansi. I gave magical beings – the dragons and High Witches – names from Norse mythology: Andgrim, Skadi and so on.

Once Tia’s world was firmly established I decided to tweak the name and spell it phonetically as Tulay.   From this point, each book presented its own research demands. The second book, The Opal Quest, needed mines but what sort? Iceland once had sulphur mines; smelly, dangerous and with an unpleasant feature known as ‘snottites’ which look exactly like you’d think; mucoid drips of sulphuric acid. Children would love them. However, sulphur wasn’t easily portable and that made it unsuitable. What else was mined in Iceland? Crystals.

Iceland yields a calcite known as Icelandic spar. Vikings called these crystals ‘sunstones’ and used them as a navigation aid. Once I had that information everything else fell into place. I had mines and crystal caves.

And the sunstones usefulness to mariners meant I could introduce Water Traders, the nautical branch of the Land Traders. Perfect.

In The Topaz Quest, High Witch Luona forces the townsfolk to cultivate saffron. This is back-breaking work; the flowers are picked one by one and the three central stigma pinched out and dried slowly in special kilns. It takes 500 hours to gather 200,000 flowers and 600 grams of scarlet stigma to yield 100 grams of spice. That’s why saffron costs £9,260 a kilo and gold a paltry £766 a kilo. (I have to research up-to-date figures before I give talks to children as they always want hard data on money. Children are mercenary creatures.)

I wasn’t certain if crocuses would grow in the mountains but discovered that corms producing high quality saffron are grown on a sunlit plateau near the mountain village of Mund in Switzerland. Fortuitously, this was identical to Luona’s lands of Stoplar.

For the fourth book, The Sapphire Quest, I wanted to build on a hazy childhood memory: a Victorian photo album containing pictures of rows of strange looking stone animals. Just what and where were these creatures I half-remembered? The album had been inlaid with a Chinese design in ivory and stained wood. A quick Google of ‘avenue beasts China’ showed it to be the Sacred Road in Beijing which leads to the tombs of Ming emperors.

I adapted this for my book giving the marble animals red eyes that light up and watch Tia walk towards the town, their necks grating as their heads swivel in her direction.

Not all information comes from libraries or the Internet and I turned to experts for the last two books. There is a pivotal horse race in The Ruby Quest and the only thing I understand about riding is that I am never going to master the rising trot. Two expert horsewomen came to my rescue and I was able to write a convincing and thrilling horse race. Thank you, Rosemary Boulton and Kate Merry.

The final book, The Pearl Quest, features swans. I found references to Abbotsbury Swannery and they put me in touch with David Wheeler, the world’s only swanherd. He patiently explained all I needed to know about the care and behaviour of swans.

After this, the only question remaining was: do jackdaws have a sense of smell?   According to a paper published by The Royal Society: ‘…our findings suggest that olfaction in birds may be a more important sense than generally believed.’3

Research complete, I wrote the books.

DragonChild: The Emerald Quest, The Opal Quest, The Topaz Quest, The Sapphire Quest, The Ruby Quest, The Pearl Quest. Published by A & C Black, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing plc

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