Sometimes you start writing with the idea of creating a small, intimate tale — and then the tale decides it has other plans. Such was the case when Miriam Forster started writing City of a Thousand Dolls. What happens when a story grows beyond your expectations? Let’s find out.
The original idea for City of a Thousand Dolls arrived like a gift. I’d been reading a book about Guinevere (I believe it was The Child Queen by Nancy Mckenzie) and I came across the line “Who are you being groomed for?” That line dug into me and hung on, and suddenly, I had an entire setting in my head, an estate where girls would be groomed and trained for different roles. It was lush and opulent, with different Houses that would raise everything from musicians and noblewomen to warriors and assassins.
But it was just a setting. I needed a plot, I needed characters, and most importantly I needed an idea of what the book was about. In order for me to actually write a book, there has to be some sort of central human experience to orient the story around. It doesn’t have to be preachy, or obvious to anyone but me. But it needs to be there or my story wanders off into the weeds and gets lost.
I thought for sure that a story with such a setting as the City of a Thousand Dolls must be about expectations. How expectations shape people, what happens when you go against them, or worse, what happens when no one has any expectations of you at all. That was the story I set out to write. But when I finished the first draft, I discovered that wasn’t what I’d written at all. Without meaning to, I’d written a story about different kinds of love: friendship, admiration, romance, and family. I’d made a character—Nisha Arvi—who had all of those kinds of relationships, a girl who was vulnerable and stubborn, impulsive and prone to make mistakes. Those mistakes had consequences, and the consequences affected her relationships.
That was the core of the story I’d written, a story about the way that different kinds of love and affection stand up under the pressure of human frailty. It was a small, personal story at its heart.
But the setting was neither small nor personal. And it grew as time went on. The Empire had been cut off by magic. There was unrest, there was social injustice, there was a mystery surrounding Nisha herself. And that wasn’t even counting all the dead bodies. My little story was becoming epic.
That led to some problems. The stakes weren’t high enough. The world was underdeveloped and unsatisfying. It took a lot of work to make the events of the story match the setting, without losing the idea of love and relationships that lay at its roots.
I could have abandoned the original core, but I didn’t want to. For me, fantasy, and especially high fantasy, is better when it’s grounded in the muck and mud of the human experience. Fantasy is wonderful for exploring big themes of good and evil and writing vast, complicated stories about politics and prophecies and chosen ones. But the greatest fantasies, the most enduring ones, keep the human connection. The best example I can think of is Tolkien, who wrote a great, sweeping epic about the rise of a Dark Lord… and then hinged the fate of the world on two hobbits and a mad little cave-dweller.
So I hung onto the little story I’d created. All through the rewrites and the research and the development of the world and the stakes, I kept the personal heart of the book intact. And even now, it weirds me out a bit to see City of a Thousand Dolls described as epic. “No, you don’t understand,” I want to say. “It’s really not that big, I swear.” No one believes me.
They don’t have to. After all, I’m not the only person writing the story; the reader has their part to play. Now that it’s out in the world, the book doesn’t belong to me, anyway. It belongs to them, to make of it what they will. But to me, City of a Thousand Dolls will always be primarily about a girl who wants to do the right thing and sometimes fails, and the people who love her anyway. And that’s the way I like it.