Cork native Helen Corcoran’s debut Young Adult novel, Queen of Coin and Whispers, has received widespread acclaim for its low fantasy setting, its story rich in both quiet subterfuge and moments of sharp intensity, and its engaging LGBTQ+ protagonists. We were fortunate enough to be able to sit down with her virtually to ask a few about her debut and her work.
How did you go about world-building when you were creating Edar?
I’m one of those writers who has to write a (terrible) first draft to figure out the basics of my world-building. Once I have a draft, I fine tune the world. To use an example: originally, there was magic in the world, but including magic in a political and diplomat-focused novel created more problems than it solved, especially in a self-contained novel. How did ruling families keep power if they had no magic? How did diplomacy work if one country had magic and the other didn’t; what stopped the magical country from invading? So I decided that magic and faith were intertwined with belief, and when religion faded, so did belief in magic. There used to be magic in Lia and Xania’s world, but it’s been so long ago that it’s viewed almost as mythology. It might have happened and some version of those people probably existed.
There’s a video on Youtube that shows how Europe has changed over the centuries with different empires, the rise and fall of different countries, and how things like geography and war changed borders and foreign policy. That was a huge influence on the world-building—I knew Edar and its neighbours wouldn’t be static. The biggest thing I tried to keep in mind was that ever-shifting map of Europe: if this happened, or a country reacted like this to something, does that have consequences—if so, do they last? Queen has such a tight focus that I ended up cutting out, or not using, some of the world-building, but I wanted to include enough for the reader to understand what was going on, yet still be aware that there’s so much more to all the shared history beyond this book.
I’m a firm believer that worldbuilding should only appear as needed in the narrative. This was particularly challenging in Queen of Coin and Whispers, which is written in dual first person POV. I had to work in the details that the reader needed to ground themselves, but in ways that fit Lia and Xania’s viewpoints, neither of whom would find them important things to think about or mention. (Hard lesson learned for writing fantasy novels in first person.)
Do you listen to music when you’re writing? If so, what did you listen to when you were writing Queen of Coin and Whispers?
I write and lightly edit to music (more intense editing is done with noise-cancelling headphones), so every book ends up having a soundtrack. I have a playlist for Queen of Coin and Whispers on Spotify: I started building it back in 2013 and added to it over the years. Some songs are there because I listened to them on loop while drafting so I associate them with the book, or they evoke a feeling or character; sometimes the lyrics relate to the book. “Gloria Regali” by Tommee Profitt fits the TV or movie trailer in my head, while “Castle” by Halsey and “Duck Shoot” from The Crown’s Season One soundtrack are songs I heavily associate with Lia. “The Necklace of Marie Antoinette” is a Xania song for me, and I associate “War of Hearts” by Ruelle with the Midwinter Ball in the book—I listened to it every time I worked on that scene.
(A link to her playlist can be found here: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7ubHMA05EklPCItVYxps9E?si=yCAB86TzReCm0Hrx4NWB5)
I also have a general writing playlist, which is usually dramatic trailer type instrumental music, which I put on when I’m tired or stressed and trying to motivate myself to write. There’s no real theme to those songs—they’re ones I find randomly and that make me think of stories.
What was your favourite book that you read during the lockdown?
So like almost everyone else, I found it really hard to read (and write) during the first weeks of lockdown. In my case, it was the stress and anxiety of the unknown, coupled with doom-scrolling online and adjusting to my flatmates also working from home. There was also a lot of uncertainty around Queen’s April release and whether it would have to be pushed back (which it was, to June). Around the end of April, I picked up something entirely different to the YA and fantasy novels I was in the middle of reading but not making much headway through: an adult contemporary novel called The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary, which had been sitting on my TBR pile for months. I loved it and it got me out of my reading slump.
You can find Helen on Twitter @hcor, and on Instagram @glittersandglows