Deryn Pittar wins the 2014 Story Quest writing contest

SpecFicNZ would like to extend our congratulations to member Deryn Pittar, whose short story “The Carbonite’s Daughter” has won the 2014 Story Quest writing contest. We asked Deryn to write a short article about the processes and challenges of worldbuilding for a competition with a specific theme and setting.

WORLD BUILDING for ‘The Carbonite’s Daughter’

The theme for this contest was “Punking the Steam Train”. It had to feature a steam train and a station. As I know little about Victorian times I set the story in the future, where steam trains would be the main, if not only, form of transport.

I chose 3020 as a date and I needed a catastrophic event that had destroyed other forms of transport. The obvious answer was a nuclear event and I settled on calling it the Nuclear Dawn. Radiation would be a threat to all living things above ground. Everything would need to be underground. Steam trains run on coal and water. Where are there a lot of both? The South Island – masses of coal and snow melt. Why not have the whole of the Southern Alps riddled with coal? It’s 3020; by the time of the Nuclear Dawn many tunnels would have been burrowed through the Alps. Why not join them together? Even better, why not have the main track running underground through the Alps from Westport to Queenstown – with perhaps the odd capsule tunnel as outside links where the underground tunnels could not be joined.

I started with a child at the station with her mother. I had the missing father as a reason for the child’s excitement, but why was he missing?

I considered the coal required for the train and wondered if by then, there could be a religion that worshiped coal; it’s made of carbon, and carbon is the building block of life forms.

Bingo! I’ll call them the ‘Carbonites’.

I needed a reason for the child to travel from Westport to Queenstown and why she hadto be accompanied by a parent. I won’t spoil the story by telling you why.

I used memories of riding a steam train from Auckland to the Bay of Plenty, as a child. The grit, the smell of sulphur in the tunnels, the carriage swaying as it rumbled through the darkness. I drew on these memories and enhanced them to suit.

I wrote the first draft, and edited it several times, changing the sex of the child, the reason for the travel and solving the problem of how Queenstown managed to survive and remain a destination. I had to stop editing before I ruined it completely. I kept adding information as more options formed. It could have become an information dump. Instead I have the bones of a full length novel. I can continue to build the world, adding characters and crises, using ideas I couldn’t fit into the story. I solved the ventilation of the tunnels, but I didn’t have a reason to put it in. Survival beyond the underground living quarters is fraught with radiation: “nothing can survive for long – so we’re told” – three magic words that will enable my imagination to play with a few scenarios to contradict that.

I love writing in the future. No one says ‘you’ve got that wrong’!

You can read Deryn’s story, along with the other prizewinners, online in Edition 18 of SQMag.


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