The Big Idea: Stuart Jaffe
Like most of my books, the Big Idea for The Water Blade (indeed, for the entire trilogy it kicks off) grew out of a small idea. In this case, a joke. A stupid joke, at that.
I was helping my son move across the country from California to North Carolina. Knowing we had several days of driving ahead and that I had agreed to put together a trilogy proposal for Falstaff Books, I thought this was a good time to think through ideas. John Hartness, founder and publisher, wanted a high fantasy/mystery hybrid, so I decided to start with some world-building and finding a good magic system. My son, drawing upon our many years of childish scatological humor, said to me, “You know what you should do — poop magic.” We then spent too much time expanding that idea in all of its ridiculous silliness to our road weary amusement.
But then my writer brain thought — I wonder if I could actually pull that off.
Obviously, I couldn’t use the word poop. Much too giggle inducing. But when you step out of the silly side of it and think of it as a practical catalyst for some kind of magic, suddenly it becomes dark and disturbing. A bit disgusting. A bit scary.
I could work with that. And I did. I took this one aspect of a people and explored how it bloomed throughout their entire culture. Because that’s what cultures do. One tiny event will ripple through a culture changing big things and small.
In The Water Blade, I created a world with three major countries, each with its own culture, and pitted them against each other. In the western Feral Lands, the Dacci witches use waste matter of all kinds along with bones and teeth to cast their magic. Cultural shifts included an entire religion around what bestows upon them their power to the way a village is shaped (to collect as much waste as possible) to what people wear.
On the eastern coast, a country exists that is having a technological revolution. Guns are replacing swords. Electricity is becoming controllable. Horseless carriages are a reality. Magic is no longer needed. These technologies are shifting the cultural norms, changing the power structure of who is valued and why, as well as bringing pressure on the old religions who can no longer be the sole source of miracles.
Caught in the middle of these two divergent cultures is the Frontier. This land is, on the surface, a typical high fantasy world complete with a King, his knights, and of course, horses. But the pressures from the magic-wielding witches on one side and the growing technological might on the other is fraying away the Frontier’s desire to remain neutral. The kingdom is caught between making alliances and cautioning enemies — never entirely sure which is which and trying not get crushed by the tension.
All of that, of course, could have been nothing more than world-building, but like real-world cultures, these weave throughout the lives of our adventurers. Their actions — big or small — often trigger ripples through the world. And like all books, we see the truth of the idea in our own reality.
When I started writing The Water Blade, nobody had ever heard of COVID. But that small virus has altered everything. And the depths of those changes will be felt for well over a generation. Whether through small things — that wearing masks by some will probably be commonplace for the rest of my life — to much bigger things — the demise/rise of many companies as people shift to online retail and never shift back.
The political fallout is enormous. Worldwide. While there’s a good argument to be made that Trump might have won re-election if COVID never happened, the fact that he lost puts a very different man in the White House. That changes the way the US deals with other countries in the world. And that changes the stability of the world as a whole.
All because of a virus.
Little things grow into big things. And little ideas grow into big ideas.