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Utterly Dark: Building a World


This is the map of the Wildsea that I worked from while I was writing Utterly Dark. As you can see, it’s a considerably smaller world than the galaxy-wide rail network of the Railhead series, and I think that was part of the appeal: to focus in on a tiny little world in great detail. 

Like most of my stuff, it probably goes back to Tolkien. I didn’t consciously base Wildsea on the Shire, but it’s a similar idea - a slightly idealised rural England of the Olden days, but with wild magic lurking just beyond its borders. Here’s a quick tour of some points of interest, starting 1/3 of the way up the west coast at Sundown Watch and moving clockwise.



This is the house where Utterly lives, and where much of the action takes place. There’s always something evocative about a house on a cliff top, I think. I remember seeing one at Rinsey in Cornwall many years ago that instantly suggested a story, so that got filed away till the time was right. Around the same time, my friend Justin Hill was selling his excellent photos through a site which printed them on cards and canvas, but also on mouse-mats, mugs, whatever you wanted basically. I was looking through his page there one day and came across a nice image of a boat drawn up on a Sussex beach in the evening light. It was captioned ‘Boat at Sundown Watch’, and I spent a good five minutes wondering where Sundown Watch was and how it had got its name before I noticed that there was also a Boat at Sundown Clock, a Boat at Sundown Mouse Mat, a Boat at Sundown Coaster Set, etc… But Sundown Watch was a good name for a house - what was it the residents had to keep watch for each sundown? So that got filed away too, and eventually Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep coalesced around the name.

The house on Rinsey Head


Who is St Chyan, who has given his or her name to several landmarks in Wildsea? I dunno, it’s just a name that popped into my head when a name was needed, inspired by the odd saint’s names that litter maps of Cornwall. I expect St Chyan was the missionary who first brought Christianity to Wildsea. The stone circle which crowns St Chyan’s Head is probably an echo of the one in Excalibur.


Not marked on the map because it would have been a bit of squeeze, but Blanchmane's Cove is the cove below Sundown Watch, where Utterly has her first encounters with the Gorm.


Another random name. In the very earliest drafts, the dreaded sea monster which is rumoured to haunt the Western Deeps was called the Mara. Then it became the Gorm - a name I salvaged from a race of malevolent aliens in a giant sci-fi novel I started writing during lockdown before I turned my full attention to Utterly Dark. (If I ever go back to it, the aliens will need a new name. Maybe I’ll call them the Mara.) By coincidence, it turns out the Fir Gorm are an actual legend of the sea - the Blue Men of the Minch in Hebridean legend. 

I think when I started writing I planned use a few bits of existing folklore - mermaids, kelpies, etc - but there are a lot of books about things like that already, so I've ended up mostly inventing my own folklore.


There is an area like this at Lyme Regis and another at The Strangles in North Cornwall - jungly, lumpy, overgrown terraces of land formed when the cliffs subsided. They always look like good places for stories.



I'm not a good enough map-maker to show the high hills that run down the centre of the island - Owlsbarrow Beacon, the Black Hill, and Merriport Hill are the main summits. They don't have a big part to play in the story, but I guess they mean that Sundown watch and the settlements of the west coast are more cut-off: it's a fair old trek over to Merriport and Stack, and probably not worth the bother in winter.


I made a research trip to Bude, in North Cornwall, and walked up the beach toward Morwenstow. Wherever a river comes down to the sea it’s called (something) Mouth, so I nicked that for Wildsea.



The story doesn’t demand a hill fort, but I like the idea that there are layers and layers of history and archaeology on the island. 


One of the layers of history is the Trolls, who seem to be Wildsea’s original inhabitants, and live in a few small villages up in the woods of the Dizzard. I think I had the idea they might be Neanderthals - Tom Björklund’s beautiful Neanderthal portraits stuck in my mind - but they’ve been intermingling with the rest of the islanders for so long that they’re not very obviously Neanderthal any more. 

In early drafts I think I toyed with the idea of the Dizzard as a separate island, but the strait which separated it from Wildsea got narrower and narrower until it’s become just a small river, which is crossed by a pack horse bridge below the inn at Trollbridge.


Art by Tom Björklund


There is a real Dizzard - a patch of oak woodland on the sloping cliff edge between Crackington Haven and Widemouth Bay in North Cornwall. (I assumed the name was a West Country version of ‘desert’, but it turns out to be from the Cornish dyserth, meaning 'really steep'.) Coming from Sussex, where I can't think of any wooded beaches, I've always found places where trees grow right down to the sea rather exotic and magical. Wildsea’s Dizzard is much more extensive than the real one, with bigger and twistier trees. It's more like the woods of Dartmoor, particularly the ones which clad the crags of Dewerstone, with surprisingly well-paved quarry tracks winding through them. There’s a lake on the Dizzard too, but it doesn’t really feature in the story. That's inspired by looking down from the plane when I was flying to Islay a few years ago and seeing an lake on an island, with another island in the middle of it.

I suppose it’s unusual to have this much timber on a remote island, but the Dizzard is under the protection of Aish, who is a mysteriously powerful character in ways that even I don’t understand, so maybe she’s been able to persuade people not to fell the trees. And there's plenty of peat on the hills, so they don't really need the firewood.


I don’t think this is mentioned in the story - I just needed a name for the map. It’s a reference to the artist Iris Compiet, who paints brilliant and rather sinister faery pictures, and loves Dartmoor.



Again, not really mentioned, except in a few passing asides - Utterly Dark is mostly about the west coast of Wildsea. But one lesson I learned early from Prof Tolkien is that you need to know where the roads go to, and what’s over that hill. Stack Head is the highest cliff on Wildsea.



Wildsea is a West Country island, and the West Country is tin mining country - at least, Dartmoor and Cornwall are (or were). Wheal is the Cornish name for a mine. Presumably the tin which is dug out at Wheal Tizzy is taken for smelting at Stannery.



Here in the east coast there is a tradition of seafaring and fishing, activities which no one on the west side of the island would dare attempt for fear of the Gorm. So Merriport is a little steep-sided harbour town, like lots of Cornish ones - think of Boscastle, or Mousehole, or Marazion. There is an inn called the Sea Trout, and a lighthouse stands on Lord Gilpin’s Knob. Who was Lord Gilpin? I do not know, but Lord Gilpin’s Knob sounded funny, so in it went.



The bay on the south coast is presumably where Thurza and Davey Froy test the diving suit she’s made, which was inspired by ‘The Old Gentleman of Raahe’, the most Doctor Who thing I’ve ever seen outside an actual episode of Doctor Who.

Photo: Raahe Museum


A line of sea stacks, a bit like the Needles on the Isle of White, but made of granite instead of chalk. I cant remember if they made the final cut - I think maybe not. But it's quite important to have more detail in your made-up world than ends up in the story, I think, otherwise it feels thin. Also, it's nice to leave a few blank bits and unexplored places, because you'll never know what you might need if you decide to write a sequel.

If you want to know more about Wildsea you'll have to read the book: published by David Fickling Books and available in the UK and Ireland from all good bookshops. It has cover art (and a better version of my map) by award-winning Irish illustrator Paddy Donnelly.


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