Megan O'Keefe has appeared once before on the show, when she spoke about her book, Steal the Sky, the first book of the Scorched Continent trilogy. It's always great to have an author return and talk about the process of expanding and deepening a world for further books.
Megan told us that she feels the amount of worldbuilding for long and short pieces is similar, but that with the short pieces, not as much of that worldbuilding work gets to show up in the text. Thus, she finds that being able to expand into a trilogy was fun because it allowed her to explore and reveal more.
One of the things featured in the story is a prison. She asked questions like, What do you do with people who don't contribute to society? Do you rehabilitate? Do you punish? Do you cast out? In many societies, being cast out meant you would die. The culture of the Scorched Continent trilogy wanted to rehabilitate some people, punish the worst, and keep some for cannon fodder.
Megan told us she did internet research on the history of prison ships. Apparently the largest prison barge in the world is in New York and is still functioning! She had planned to have her main character break out of a prison ship, but this character likes to blow things up, and that would have done more damage than she wanted to the ship and lots of other people. In the end she chose to use a prison island, with Alcatraz as a model. In fact, you can find blueprints for prisons on the internet, and look at Google Earth aerial views of prisons. You can find historical blueprints of places like high schools, and think about how they plan for things like crowd control. There will be a quadrangle in the center, and everything around it will be modular for ease of construction and ease of blocking things off. I asked her if she'd ever played Prison Architect, and she had heard of it, but had not played it while researching this book.
Megan describes the world in her trilogy as quasi-Victorian but combining a mishmash of settings. It bears some resemblance to the Renaissance because Leonardos are popping up. While exploring, the people find a continent with a magical resource that will allow them to build airships. The seas are rough, but the gaseous element, called selium, is controllable by telepathy and brings about a technological revolution.
Apparently, book 3 is the planned end of the series, but Megan is working on a novella. One of the novella's main characters is a gentleman con man, and another is his friend and emotional caretaker. Megan says she designed it as a love letter to P.G. Wodehouse and his stories. It's a fantasy romantic comedy, but no magic actually appears in the novella. Megan is planning to self-publish this, so keep an eye out for it.
In 19th century prisons, like Newgate, there was experimentation on prisoners - some medical, some psychological. In the world of the trilogy, the Whitecoats experiment on magic users to try to explain why magic works.
The magic system of the Scorched Continent world is a resource model, where powerful people try to control the resource - selium - and thereby control the magic it makes possible. This influences dictatorships, diplomacy, and trade. Selium is a gas pushed up from volcanic activity, and the people of this world are originally from another area of the planet where volcanoes are now dormant.
Whenever you have a situation where the people who can handle or manipulate a resource are specialists, where only some people can make it work, those special people will be in demand. The craftspeople themselves are a resource to be controlled. In Megan's world, telepaths become a resource, and this leads to human rights issues.
Next paragraph contains a spoiler for the selium-telepathy link:
One of the characters can see the selium molecule at a microscopic level and detect it in people's bodies. Some people have it pass through the blood-brain barrier. Even when people don't actually know how something works, there has to be a common cultural explanation for why that thing works. Do they think a substance is in the air or the water? The permeability is genetic, but the gas causes people to develop a disease called bonewither with long exposure.
If you are a rich merchant family in this world, you don't want your kids to have the selium ability. That restricts your job. It's especially a problem for the sole heir of such a family. People are pushing back to try to take control, hiding their abilities. Revolution is brewing.
Velathia is the source for the primary government because their volcanoes were dormant and they came up with workable sailing technology, that allowed them to spread through the islands.
The Katari lived on the Scorched Continent first, and they have a more relaxed relationship with selium. However, their society was smaller because of the extent of the badlands. They were taken over by the Velathi. Colonization is an issue in all three of these books. One character is an agent of the indigenous people. People born on the Scorched Continent are loyal to it, and don't identify as Velathi. They also have technology, and that gives them the ability to push back.
The magic of selium is finite, because selium is non-renewable. Megan shared with us some of her ideas for the far future of this planet. She thinks selium will cause global cooling, and that tectonics of the planet will slow. She told us she's having fun imagining the kinds of pressures this would put on the people of her world.
Megan, it was a pleasure to have you on the show! Thanks for letting us in on the intricacies of your world (and for being patient).
This week, Dive into Worldbuilding meets at a special time: Wednesday, May 17th at 5pm Pacific/8pm Eastern. We'll be speaking with author John Chu. I hope you can join us!