It’s mid-September, and that means it’s time to start thinking seriously about our NaNo novels. Yes, some people just start writing on November 1 with no idea where the plot is going, but as we’ve mentioned before, we both believe in planning our stories ahead of time. Outlining, after all, is half the fun. I’ll probably be writing two novels this year, as I have done the last two years, and starting early like this will give me plenty of time to fully outline both stories and make profiles for all the characters.
In addition to outlining, though, there’s also reference work to be done. And part of that for me this year will be coming up with a new school. The heroine of my second story is going to be obliged by straitened family finances to become a teacher, so I’ve got to design the school that she will be teaching at.
Luckily, we already know something about the educational system of our fantasy world. Three of the four main POV characters in the Quartet meet at an elite boarding school, early in the first book. This was one of the very earliest ideas that we had when we were first outlining the Quartet. So you could say that we’ve been thinking and writing about a school in our ‘verse for the better part of eight years now. One of the first scenes S ever wrote for our story, in fact, takes place at that school. For my first NaNo novel, I wrote Guardian Winter, which tells what happens at that school during the war, while our POV characters go off and have exciting adventures together.
But that’s the super-elite school, where brilliant people and princesses and wizards-in-training go. What about the other schools? Obviously, in a medieval or renaissance-based world, any school at all will be, to a certain extent, an elite institution, since there will be large numbers of people who don’t go to school at all, or are apprentices, or who are tutored at home. But not every school is going to be quite like the school where the king sends his beloved daughter.
So now I’m trying to come up with another school, bearing in mind that everything there should be a bit less grand than at the school we’ve already seen. Fortunately, there’s a lot of information on the web about education in the renaissance and about fancy boarding schools in general. Over the years, for example, the Wiki pages on Eton and Winchester College have been a surprisingly fruitful source of ideas.
There’s the matter of curriculum, as well. Not that I’m going to make my readers slog through long transcriptions of lectures, but it’s good to have a sense of what characters at this new school would be learning. Especially since the main POV character is going to be a teacher. What sort of qualifications would she have to have? Presumably to get a teaching job, she would have to master the standard curriculum. So what sort of things is she supposed to know? Luckily, the content of a medieval or renaissance education is pretty well known.
In our ‘verse, people study literature and foreign languages, too, not just classical texts. We gave our characters a grounding in foreign languages because that makes it easier to explain why they can all talk to each other. And we have them study contemporary literature, even though that’s a decidedly modern idea, because we’re both former English majors, and that way we can draw on our own educational experiences.
As with a lot of worldbuilding, there are two competing pressures that determine what kind of educational system you have in your ‘verse: the needs of the story, and the logical consequences that flow from the kind of society your characters live in. If, for example, I need a teenage character to be able to speak Swedish, I can just say that she happens to have attended a school where they teach Swedish to everyone. There’s really nothing that couldn’t, hypothetically, be part of a school curriculum if you really wanted it to be—gymnastics, magic, gardening. You name it, someone somewhere could teach it. But then you have to consider the implications of that curriculum. What kind of a school has a mandatory Swedish-as-a-foreign-language program? What does it say about the town where my heroine lives that it could support such a program? What sort of place is this where teaching the kids Swedish in school would make sense? (No offense, Sweden.) School curricula aren’t always a perfect reflection of society, goodness knows. But at least to a certain extent, what’s taught in school is basically what adults think kids need to know in order to be decent adults. So you can learn a lot about a place by considering what they would want to teach their kids.
I’ve come up with a brief history of the town and the school already, and I’ll probably be making a map soon. My goal is to make sure that I have a sense of what the school is like, so that when I put my POV characters there, I can describe it without too much trouble. My hope is that it feels like a real place, with sufficient character of its own that the reader won’t just dismiss it as “Hogwarts-lite.”