Article by Christopher G. Nuttall
Right now, I am currently writing The Princess in the Tower, which is the fifteenth book in the Schooled in Magic series. Those books – and one novella – make Schooled in Magic my longest-running series, a series based around a single character. And, as I have plans for somewhere around twenty-one to twenty-four books, Schooled in Magic will be going on for quite some time. But where, I have been asked, did the story come from? And why is it the way it is?
The weird thing about Schooled in Magic is that I stumbled into the original plotline by accident. But let me start from the beginning.
Back in 2014, I came up with an idea I called Heritage, an idea I discussed quite extensively at the time. The basic plot was that a king, the absolute ruler of a fantasy world in another dimension, had been disposed and forced to flee to our world. (I wasn’t sure, at the time, if he’d been overthrown by his brother or his wife.) He took his infant daughter with him, forcing her to grow up in our world. Unfortunately, as she started puberty, the magic that was part of her heritage started to manifest itself. This forced her father to send her back to a homeland she had long-since forgotten, where she would be trained in magic. She would have to keep her head down, just to make sure she wasn’t noticed by her uncle.
I got as far as sketching out the character – a proto-Alassa – when some of the problems with the setting started to manifest. On one hand, if the exiled king has access to modern technology as well as magic, why can’t he go back and reclaim the throne? Why not hire a bunch of mercenaries or simply steal a vast number of guns? A medieval world wouldn’t stand a chance. From a story-telling point of view, this would be a cheap ending; there would be little challenge, unless the king and the mercenaries fell out. I could fiddle with the natural laws, making it impossible to use guns, but that would pose its own problems. As Dale pointed out in his review of Dies the Fire, we live in an environment full of tools that would awe a medieval knight. An ingenious man would have no trouble using our world as a source of tools to reclaim his throne. This would have inevitably led to a story spilling out of control or a reuse of the ‘adults are useless’ trope, for which I have a particular disdain.
My first solutions to this problem were unsatisfactory. The king didn’t want an influx of advanced technology – or outsiders. They would bring with them ideas and concepts – as well as technologies – that would shatter the monarchy. But his daughter might have different ideas. And while one could get a story out of that, it would be odd. The rate of change, once a new idea took root, would be very difficult to predict. A likable character in that position would not flail around randomly, no matter how much she hates the lack of modern technology.
At this point, I looked back at one of my older – unpublished – works (Shifting Sands) and started to upgrade it. The story would no longer feature a king in exile. Instead, it would follow someone who was swept into an alternate world by accident … and had no way to get home, thus ensuring they had to either grow into power or be eventually dominated by someone else. The heroine of Shifting Sands – in the same manner as the hero of Lest Darkness Fall – had an odd skill-set, so I rewrote her quite extensively. She would no longer be the daughter of a paranoid, but loving father. Such a character would have good reason to want to find a way home. Instead, she would have a thoroughly unpleasant family life and plenty of reasons to want to stay.
Emily and the Nameless World started to take shape at the same time. I wanted a world that was rigid in some ways – a social system that didn’t allow much mobility – but also quite flexible in others. A global empire might have tried to freeze research and development, much as the Chinese were able to ban the development of ocean-going ships and gunpowder, but a handful of kingdoms in constant competition wouldn’t have such a luxury. The kings and princes wouldn’t be able to stop knowledge and technology from spreading or their rivals would leave them in the dust. Emily, owing to a fascination with history that wasn’t killed by her school, would have quite a few advantages, if she lived long enough to learn to use them.
The magic system – and how magic was integrated with the greater society – took shape as the Nameless World developed. There would be enough magic to ensure that a magocracy could not take shape, at least not on a large scale, but not enough magic to give everyone magic. I worked out the rules, including some I haven’t discussed in the books yet, then followed on from there. The Necromancers – and the constant threat they posed – had to be explained, so I went with the idea of no shortcuts. People who tried to speed up their education in magic tended to come to bad ends. However, there would also be a great deal of research and development. Magicians would always be looking for newer and better ways to do things – I don’t find the idea of knowledge from a bygone age being lost to be particularly creditable – and this would shape the world. It also drained most of the innovating talent into magic.
I honestly could not have written Schooled in Magic if I hadn’t been living in Malaysia at the time. Emily’s faint sense of disconnection from the Nameless World is akin to the feeling I had while I was staying there, even though – intellectually – I knew this to be nonsense. Local affairs washed around me, without touching me; the election that was so significant to the locals meant little to me. Emily is both part of her new world and an observer looking on from outside the local mindset. This is both a strength and a weakness.
At its core, therefore, Schooled in Magic is three things:
First, it is a story of a young girl who finds herself in magic school and starts to learn magic, as well as growing out of her shell and into a mature young woman.
Second, it is the story of someone who tries to apply concepts from her old world to her new one, combining science and magic to produce a series of different effects.
Third, it is the story of massive social change caused by the influx of new ideas.
I was fairly sure, from the start, that Emily would have to be female. On one hand, I wanted to avoid as many comparisons to Harry Potter as possible. On the other hand, a man in the Nameless World would be expected to have a very different character. A SAS trooper or a Navy SEAL might be able to cope – I keep thinking about that variant on the story – but a regular young schoolboy could not. A woman wouldn’t be taken quite as seriously as a man – particularly after I realised that Emily would have to start the story at sixteen, rather than twelve – but, at the same time, this would give her a measure of protection. Most local men would not see her as an automatic threat, even if they knew she had magic. Historically, women – even outright traitors – were rarely executed by male rulers. By the time this viewpoint started to change, it would be too late.
This did pose a number of challenges. It isn’t easy to design a female character who is both recognisably female and interesting to men as well as women. I chose not to dwell on some issues and skim over others, although I couldn’t help mentioning some points. Emily has limitations that come from being female, and others that come from not having a lifetime of training, but she earns respect by making a visible effort to overcome them. I tried hard to make it clear that she was learning, slowly. I also did my best to avoid a number of turn-offs for male readers. The ‘female gaze,’ for example, makes male readers uncomfortable.
I’ve been asked if Emily owes anything to Hermione Granger. Personally, I don’t think so: she draws a great deal from three of my favourite heroines as a child; Dinah Glass (The Demon Headmaster), Mildred Hubble (The Worst Witch), and Matilda (Matilda). Looks-wise, she originally drew from Dinah, but that changed as I realised Emily would have to be older. I wanted her to have character, rather than classic good looks, not least because a different world might have different standards of beauty.
And then Whitehall itself – a combination of boarding school and military academy – took shape. I didn’t sketch out too much of the school’s history, at least until I started planning Past Tense, but I was fairly sure of the general outline from the start. The school’s lax attitude to some things might be seen as the natural outcome of a belief that people need to be toughened up; its strict attitude to others is a reflection of the dangers of training students in magic. And then …
Well, I wrote the first novel.
I had a vague plan for the series, which I firmed up in places and discarded in others as I continued to write Schooled in Magic books. Some ideas were rapidly tossed aside – Shadye was originally going to be a long-term threat, but as the magic system developed it became clear he couldn’t play that role – while others grew and developed. I sketched out a number of characters who were immediately important, including a lot of details I haven’t mentioned in the books, while others didn’t get more than a placeholder in my mental map until I needed to bring them front and centre. Others changed as they were introduced. Alassa was originally going to be the ‘bully’ character, but – again – as the world took shape and form, it became clear that she couldn’t play that role. (Besides, Emily and Alassa becoming friends opened the way for more stories). Melissa played the role for a while, then Jacqui. Jade was originally going to be Emily’s boyfriend, but as both characters grew it became clear that Jade would be happier with Alassa.
Indeed, although I knew there would be some romance eventually, I shied away from it for six books. This was partly to avoid alienating some readers, but also to avoid allowing romance to dominate the series. I didn’t want Emily to fall into many of the traps of teenage romance, real or fictional; as I’ve said before, teenage romance novels are cringe-worthy because most teenage romance is cringe-worthy. I was also fairly sure that Emily’s first romance wouldn’t last. She’d test the waters and discover that she liked sex, with the right partner, but she’d also find out that romance doesn’t cure everything.
I’ve had a lot of fun, as the story developed, laying the groundwork for later novels even as I wrote the earlier ones. I tried to introduce characters before they became important – Master Grey, Gordian – and talk about events, like an impending war or social crisis, before they impacted on Emily’s life. Some readers enjoyed pointing them out; others, the first mentions of Vesperian, were missed until I brought him front and centre. Quite a few of these will become important in the next few years.
There are a handful of points I regret introducing and others that, so far, haven’t paid off. (I get readers asking when they are going to pay off, which I suppose is a good sign.) One of the problems with any sort of long-running series is the need to develop the overall plot while keeping the individual novels fairly self-contained, something that didn’t work out as well as I had hoped. (I had hoped to have one school book, followed by a holiday book, at least until Emily left school.) I ended up having to tie Infinite Regress and Past Tense together, which allowed me to solve the problem of the first book while setting up the second; I did the same, perhaps less effectively, with The Gordian Knot and Graduation Day.
In story terms, only six years have passed since Emily was yanked into the Nameless World. It is quite hard to project both the pace of change triggered by her ideas and her growth as a character. I’ve had readers insisting that both should move faster or slower: Emily either grew up too quickly or too slowly, ideas flourished too quickly or too slowly. I’ve been trying to keep it as realistic as possible, but it isn’t easy. Emily grows slowly, at least in part, because she’s been through hell; the pace of change is unpredictable because many different minds are taking her innovations and improving on them. But then, that’s what happened in our world too once the industrial revolution really took off.
And so you have it … the story of Schooled in Magic.
I’ve been having a lot of fun writing these, as I hope you can tell. And I hope to write many more in the years to come.