Confessions of an unwilling world builder

Kate Harrison is the author of the brilliant thriller series SOUL BEACH, published by our sister imprint Indigo. We are delighted to welcome her as a guest blogger as  she tells us how she masterminded the intricate and fascinating world the characters in her trilogy inhabit.

Kate is a full time author having worked in television and lives by the sea in Brighton.  SOUL BEACH is her stunning new trilogy which explores 16-year-old Alice’s mission to not only find out who murdered her sister, but also explore the mysterious life of the afterworld – the seemingly idyllic teenager’s paradise in an online virtual beach.


Inventing an online limbo was never on my list of writing ambitions.

Sure, as a child, I had a passion for fantasy series – I re-read The Dark is Rising series every year on rainy Cornish holidays and adored John Wyndham. But as an adult, I’ve read more contemporary fiction. No time slip, no supernatural creatures and absolutely no breaking of the rules of physics.

When I became a novelist, I wrote comedies featuring characters whose problems –redundancy, bereavement, divorce – were absolutely grounded in 21st century reality.

Then two things changed: first, I discovered young adult books, which blended real life and fantasy so brilliantly. And second, I had an idea for a book that definitely pushed the definition of ‘reality’ – a story set in a kind of Facebook for the dead.

Where to begin?

The idea was triggered by the way online profiles turn into shrines if a user dies. Photos from parties, and mundane updates about school or exam results, become unbearably poignant, especially if the person who died was young. It’s almost as though they’re still alive…

What if they really did have an afterlife, online? I began imagining a cyber-limbo where Guests live forever unless they can make contact with the living to help them seek justice for untimely deaths.

The idea gripped me – but I had no idea where to begin. All previous novels had settings that were based on places I’d lived, or visited. This was different. I had to build the world myself…

It’s like a beach party on a music video: sun worshippers clustered round the bamboo beach huts and splashing about in the turquoise water.

My first instinct was that my deceased Guests deserved a teenager’s paradise, to make up for early death. A tropical beach, maybe, where the dead would be enhanced to their most beautiful, all life-ending injuries healed. A free bar with endless food and drink. There would be no hangovers, no pregnancy scares, no consequences – but also no escape.

Dead or alive?

But who would tell my story? The obvious narrator could have been a dead Guest facing eternity. Yet they were so limited in what they could do. Instead, I chose a living Visitor, invited onto the Beach for one purpose – to help solve her sister Meggie’s murder. So 16-year-old Alice’s story begins.

The first email from my sister arrives on the morning of her funeral.

Alice decides to respond,  even though she’s convinced it’s a hoax – and the new world opens up. The site is magical, beautiful, and so real: no wonder soon she prefers it to her own life of mourning and studying. Yet there are dangers, both online and in the real world, as Meggie’s killer is still free.

Game theory

Once I’d created the world of Soul Beach, I loved it so much I decided to set three books there, as Alice grapples with the mystery not only of her sister’s death, but also of others she meets there. Her experience is like a video game, with levels and new ‘gifts’ appearing as she progresses. Her time on the Beach is enhanced by new sensory experiences – yet they also drag her deeper down.

Like all world builders, I had to set up rules and create a character to explain them: the wise gatekeeper in this case is a tattooed Liverpudlian bar manager, Sam:

‘She’s older than I thought, late twenties maybe, with dark, dread-locked  hair, laughing eyes, and a painfully detailed Celtic tattoo stretching up her skinny left arm, under the spaghetti straps of her green top. She looks like a grungy pixie.’

I do weave in real places – Barcelona, where I’ve lived, and the coast of Thailand. Of course, that needed more research! I also spent a long time researching neuro-science, as Alice grapples with her fears: is the site real, a hoax, or a figment of her grief-stricken mind? New research on how the brain processes reality has influenced all the books, but especially the final one, which I’m busy editing.

Killer blow

World-building wasn’t my only challenge! I also had a murder mystery to work with, something I’ve never had in my comedies. So I decided to go right for the biggest challenge of all – writing from the viewpoint of the unidentified murderer.

Before that night, I’d never lost control. And it hasn’t happened since. Not even a hint that it could happen again. Until today.

Is it terrible to admit I enjoyed writing those parts most of all?

Lessons in Real Life

Writing Soul Beach has given me a huge admiration for world-building writers who design entire species or kingdoms: the freedom to make your own rules is incredibly daunting. I’ve tied myself in knots a few times!

But I’ve also been struck by how this freedom allows you to comment on real life threats, like the disconnect from reality that the online world can cause, or the obsession with physical beauty. Not to mention the way that what seems like heaven can rapidly turn into hell.

The big question for me is, will I do it again, once I’ve finished the trilogy? I’m very tempted. I certainly love the freedom that writing YA fiction gives, to blend genres and ideas, for a discerning, curious audience.

Making – and breaking – the rules of reality is more fun than I could ever have guessed.

Kate Harrison’s SOUL BEACH and SOUL FIRE are available now. The final part of the trilogy will be published in 2013.