Worldbuilding by Alexandra Duncan

I am terrible at puzzles. Sudoku stumps me. I could not solve the New York Times crossword to save my life. I wouldn’t believe anyone could finish a Rubik’s Cube if I hadn’t seen my uncle do it in front of me. But there is one type of puzzle I love —worldbuilding. I love entering into an utterly believable environment that looks and feels different from the world I know, whether it’s my own invention or someone else’s, and figuring out what makes it tick. Creating such a world on the page is a challenge that usually requires a mountain of research. Luckily, I’m a massive nerd who loves learning about anything and everything, and since I work as a librarian during the day, I have tons of information at my fingertips.

One of the recurring scientific concepts in my new novel Sound is biomimetics or biomimicry, where scientists use naturally occurring phenomena, like the hairs on a gecko’s foot that allow it to climb sheer surfaces, to inspire the design of machines or human systems. I ran across this field of research while watching the PBS documentary series Nova several years ago (see, I told you I was a massive nerd), and thought it was the coolest thing I had ever heard. I had to put it in a book. But first, I needed to learn more about the field and what kind of inventions were possible.

I borrowed the book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, by Janine M. Benyus, from the library. In it I learned about investigations into self-healing materials, as well as super-strong ones. Benyus suggests that a seashell would make an ideal template for both. It has an overlapping cellular structure that makes it incredibly strong for its thickness, and it’s capable of healing itself if it’s damaged. Wouldn’t that make an ideal material for the skin of a spaceship, which is constantly bombarded with debris? What if the ship itself were shaped like a giant conch shell? And if the ship was made of a seashell-like material, what if it were grown that way, rather than built? The research shipRanganathan was born, along with the concept for the underwater environments in Sound.

Once I knew I wanted part of the book to take place deep underneath the sea, I started seeking out information about what life is like underwater. I watched the BBC’s The Blue Planet and National Geographic’s Alien Deep, among others. I learned about superheated blackwater vents along the ocean floor, giant tube worms, and divers in poor countries who work underwater with no equipment except long hoses that pump down oxygen from a generator-powered air compressor on a ship above. All of these elements ended up in Sound.

This isn’t to say that every piece of worldbuilding is planned out far in advance. Inspiration comes from research, happy coincidences, and things you read or saw once that have stuck in your memory ever since. For example, many years ago, before I even knew I was going to write Sound, I visited an aquarium that had a tank of jellyfish illuminated by blue and pink lights. When the jellyfish were within the beams, their whole bodies lit up, and I could see that their tendrils reached almost all the way to the base of the tank. Later, when I was mulling over biomimetics and how you could build an underwater city that would be able to cope with changing currents below and shifting ice above, I remembered how earthquake-proof buildings are designed to move with, rather than resist, the quake. Then I thought about the jellyfish. What if you had a city that was able to sway with the currents the way the jellyfish’s tendrils did? This vision of a jellyfish-like city became Ny Kyoto in Sound, the underwater capital of the moon Enceladus.


An inspiration for the fictional–for now!–floating city Ny Kyoto

This isn’t the whole puzzle, of course. There are abandoned space stations, gangsters’ lairs, and dangerously quirky transport ships to explore as well. I hope you find the worldbuilding in Sound as fun and immersive to read as it was to write.

Alexandra Duncan is a librarian and the author of Blight, Sound and Salvage, an Indies Introduce pick for Spring 2014. She lives in North Carolina.

Happy 20th Birthday, SUGARING! by Jessie Haas

Sap Buckets

Sap Buckets

My neighbor, Stephen Major, is sugaring, as people have done at this old sugarhouse for 100 years or more. He drives a pair of horses, Morgan/Percheron half siblings Henry and Nell, to gather sap from the buckets along the roads. Meanwhile sap self-gathers from plastic pipeline strung up the hillsides. Twenty years ago, when my book SUGARING came out, Stephen was using mainly buckets, and it was a lot easier to ride a horse through the local sugar bush.

The Sugarhouse

The Sugarhouse

This year, there’s no snow on the ground, and spring has come early. Stephen made more than 35 gallons of syrup in February. We don’t usually start sugaring till March around here, though last year the sap run went into April. So we’ve had a record cold sugaring season and a record warm one, back to back. Yesterday Stephen was gathering sap with his shirt off. It was 65 degrees out, and the sugarhouse must have been like a sauna. El Niño, or climate change? Probably both—and anything that changes sugaring season around here is unwelcome.

However, one very welcome change has come to New England since SUGARING was published. A few years ago kids suddenly began asking me, “Is Gramp a Red Sox fan?” I had no idea, but on examining the familiar illustrations (by the amazing Jos. A. Smith) more closely, I realized that the big B on the front of Gramp’s cap was a Red Sox logo.

Clear Sap Flowing

Clear Sap Flowing

Obviously I’m not a rabid sports fan, but if I care about any team it’s the Red Sox, and after an epic drought, the Sox had finally, finally won the World Series. What’s interesting is that Gramp always wore that Red Sox cap. No child ever mentioned it until the Curse was lifted. What was that about? Were Red Sox fans too humiliated to speak up, or did the kids simply never notice that cap until it became a source of pride?

Inside the Sugar House

Inside the Sugar House

We visited the sugarhouse later while Stephen was boiling, and he scooped us out a mug of syrup to taste. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed—the amazing taste of Vermont maple syrup, hot out of the pan. These days my favorite thing to make with it is maple butter. You heat a cup of maple syrup to the soft-ball stage, 240 degrees. Melt a stick and a half of butter into it (I use salted butter), then whip it with an electric mixer for 8 minutes. Maple butter is delicious on toast or an English muffin, or, let’s be honest, straight out of the jar by the spoonful. Make some. You won’t regret it.

In a couple of weeks I have a signing at the Vermont Country Store—a new venue for SUGARING, and a fun place to hang out. I like introducing the book to new readers, and I like even better hearing “I use that every year in my classes,” or “I loved that book when I was a kid.” (Though, really? I’m that old?)

Yes, I am . . . twenty years older, and so is SUGARING. The Red Sox have won the World Series twice, and we’ve had seven years and counting of an African-American president. Things change, even big things—but some of the best things don’t change much. Let’s drink to that, with a warm mug of new maple syrup.


Jessie Haas is the author of Sugaring, and several other picture books and novels for young readers. She lives in Vermont and still celebrates sugaring season every year!