At the core of the idea of a Weird Western is the desire to translate a specific period of time and its attendant cultural norms into something comprehensible to modern audiences. That’s a challenge all historical fiction faces but by switching in fantasy elements you can both simplify the process and slip in direct analogs to the present day. I find these kinds of mental challenges fun and engaging and I’ve written about my approach to world building before so I thought I would share a few takes from the Weird Western I’ve been working on.
Hexwood: Dust and Ashes started as a germ of an idea three years ago. I knew I wanted to tell a story about a gold rush but, instead of gold, I wanted people digging for magic. The initial pieces of the world fell into place quickly. The geography had the shape of the world of the late 1800s and the story would be set in what we know as North America but with different political boundaries. The culture would be dependent on digging up magic rocks to continue functioning. On top of the usual dangers of the Old West the ecosystem would be rife with supernatural monsters and killer trees. And there would be flying trains.
The flying trains were very important.
As is typical when I am working on the early stages of a story I found old ideas, some abandoned, some that I had intended to use in other ways, some that I intend to use again in much the same way, all falling into place as I solidified my ideas. Many ideas I had got cut and set aside for another time. And, in time, I had a complete tale to tell and a world to tell it in. While I can’t get too deep into all the things added and cut I thought I’d share a bit of my thought process as I addressed these issues in the hopes it will entertain you, and perhaps help you build a world of your own.
Here are how a few of the ideas in Hexwood developed.
The world of Hexwood started with the idea of magic rocks. Well, truthfully it started with the name but the first element of the story I thought of was magic rocks. I liked the idea of miners delving deep for the essence of magic but, as I began to flesh out the idea, I quickly had to decide what kind of magic I wanted them to dig for. That was a bit of a problem.
A lot of things went out the window immediately. It couldn’t be fairy tale magic, which is mostly about transformations, illusions and curses. Those things are too immaterial to dig out of the ground. It also couldn’t be things like the magic of stars or lightning or the deep oceans. The stars and storms aren’t things you can find underground and the ocean, while terrible and mysterious, has its magical qualities whether it is underground or not. That basically left the elements of earth and fire or the powers of the Underworld.
The Underworld is overdone, so it went off the list.
That left earth and fire. After some deliberation I chose fire, in part because I thought it would be interesting to experiment with a mythos similar to that of Dark Souls. I won’t delve too deep into those ideas because the idea of setting Hexwood in a world after an Age of Fire got scrapped very early but it did push me to the core idea of most magic in Hexwood, which was Fire itself.
Yes, I decided early on that the simple act of something burning would be an expression of magic and when that magic was used on metals you would get a basic effect. Silver shape itself like a living creature, tin would push away from the source of heat, aluminum would counteract gravity, and so on. To make using magic in this way practical people stored the magic of fire in a special kind of rock called sulfurite. With the basics of what I came to call volcanic magic in place, and the name of my magic rocks decided, it was time to move on. How did I build a West to put them in?
In my mind the first hurdle to creating a world that paralleled the Old West was the influence of the American Civil War. While the Gold Rush started in 1849 and marks the start of the Old West in many reckonings most Westerns are set after the Civil War and incorporate the resulting changes to weapons, warfare and culture into their narratives. If I wanted to evoke the West properly there needed to be a similar defining event not too far in Hexwood’s past.
I’m not sure where the idea for Dolmenfall originally came from but I do know what I was avoiding when I decided on it. My goal with Dolmenfall was to create a devastating internal conflict in Columbia (the nation where Hexwood is located) without referring to slavery or race. Far too much time is spent in culture today dwelling on these topics, I wanted something different and fresh. But in order to really evoke the same kind of tensions as the Civil War it needed to have elements that provoked strong distrust on both sides, as well as a clear potential for power imbalances that needed to be reckoned with but ultimately wasn’t until violence forced the issue.
After some thought I decided that the theme of this conflict should be Old versus New. In many ways the Civil War was also a conflict of old and new ways, with slavery being one of humanity’s oldest institutions and America’s economic and cultural ideas of freedom still one of the newest ideas in culture and governance. But again, to avoid making this too on the nose, I chose to make it a conflict between old magic and new. Mark Pendleton, the protagonist of the story, worked best if he fought on the losing side and so he wound up a representative of old magic.
Sulfurite is a lot like coal, it’s something you dig out of the ground that makes fire. Granted, sulfurite is rechargeable and basically functions as a battery that holds fire rather than electricity but the general principle is actually not that different than coal and thus I’d been thinking of volcanic magic as a very industrial flavor of magic. New, a little untrustworthy but very powerful. Thus it didn’t make sense for Mark to use volcanic magic, or at least not exclusively, so he had to use a different flavor of magic that was preindustrial and at least somewhat philosophically opposed to mechanization. When developing my main character I decided I wanted his magic to feel more ecclesiastical, so Mark got incense and a dowsing rod. I knew he’d need more than that but the later changes to Mark’s magic powers had more to do with his character than the world building, and with two plant based magics as a starting place – Mark specifically burns mandrake roots to use his central power and dowsing rods are wooden – I found myself thinking of him as a druid. That perfectly fit the bill for a system of old magic that would oppose a more “industrial” magic so I settled on the “Civil War” conflict in the setting being a conflict between druidic and volcanic magics rather than a war over economies and slavery.
With druids in the mix my mind immediately went to Stonehenge. Now that monument predates known druidic traditions but what I really needed was something that would emphasize the Anglo nature of the druidic tradition and Stonehenge is a truly iconic English megalith. So I made stone circles like Stonehenge an integral part of the druidic tradition. Mark trained at one, called Moraine Henge, fought to protect it during the Columbian Civil War (not a name that stuck), and watched it destroyed when his side lost. The individual stone formations – dolmen – were smashed and the druidic tradition ended, at least for a time. The only thing left was to give the conflict a name – or better yet, two. The American Civil War actually has two names, after all (the other is the War of Northern Aggression, and yes some people still refer to it as such) and each illustrates how one side thought of the conflict. So in Hexwood you may hear some people refer to the Lakeshire War – a reference to where the war was fought, certainly, but also the people blamed for starting the conflict. Other people refer to the war by its outcome – Dolmenfall, a reference to the destruction of a treasured and irreplaceable cultural touchstone.
Raging Skies, Burning Stone and Arthur Phoenixborn
For the last five or six years the idea of doing something with the mythology of King Arthur has percolated in the back of my mind. Ideas ran from the Once and Future King returning to aid modern day Britain, as the legends promised, to a clash between the Knights of the Round Table and other equally legendary figures, such as Greek heroes or Taoist Immortals. Nothing ever came of any of those ideas.
So when I was trying to ground Mark’s druidic traditions back into a larger cultural context King Arthur came to mind quite naturally. It took a little massaging but I managed to work disparate parts of various Arthurian story ideas I had tinkered with into a unified system and installed it as the mythical framework for the nation of Avalon, the England of Mark’s world, replacing the increasingly incongruous Dark Souls style mythos. It also let me establish a cultural throughline that would otherwise have been very difficult to explain.
You see, the English cultural heritage that underpins American culture, including the Old West, is distinctly Christian in nature, trading on ideas about Kings submitting to laws, mercy as a component of justice, and the imperfect nature of man that only the Western Christian tradition has ever seriously tried to put into practice. What’s interesting about Arthur is that much of his mythos seems to be an attempt to assimilate those Christian ideas into the culture of the old Angles, with Arthur himself serving as a clear Messianic figure.
My original intent with importing Arthur into the world of Hexwood was just to give the nation of Avalon a suitably mystical feeling origin. But once I realized I needed to ground the philosophies of Avalon and Columbia in something substantial in order for them to ring true Avalon’s First and Forever King started to take on more significance. He died and came back, gaining the title of Pheonixborn (replacing our Arthur’s title of Pendragon, which sounded too much like Pendleton for me to use). He united the druids and founded the Knights of the Stone Circle to place their powers at the service of the people, rather than the other way around. And he picked up two guardian deities, the Lord in Raging Skies and Lady in Burning Stone, to emphasize the idea that even the King himself should submit to authority, law and other abstract truths in order to build a stronger nation. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a coherent religion it does go a long way to fleshing out the philosophical underpinnings of the world outside the town of Hexwood, where Mark and his friends live.
And there you have it. These were the first three major steps in fleshing out a world around my simply story about magic rocks. It barely scratches the surface of all the different things I tinkered with while building Hexwood‘s world and I’m sure more things will be added and subtracted in the days to come. But hopefully you enjoyed this little glance into the process and how just one idea can quickly spiral out into many layers of complexity if you just think about it for a bit.
What? You wanted to read a story in that world? Well, Hexwood is a comic, you see. It’s not quite done with production although I can share the cover art with you here:
But I don’t plan on publishing the script here. Still. Maybe we can work something out. Come back next week. You may be pleasantly surprised.