Deborah Sheldon is a professional writer from Melbourne, Australia. Her short fiction has appeared in well-respected magazines such as Quadrant, Island, Aurealis, Midnight Echo, SQ Mag, and Tincture Journal. Her work is also found in various anthologies. Upcoming titles include the crime-noir novellas, Dark Waters and Ronnie and Rita, the horror collection, Perfect Little Stitches and other stories, and the contemporary crime novel, Garland Cove Heist. Other writing credits include television scripts such as Neighbours, stage plays, magazine articles, award-winning medical writing, and non-fiction books for Reed Books and Random House Australia.
Deborah also has a new-out Horror novel, Devil Dragon, from Severed Press and I’m very please to be able to host her here today, sharing some of the worldbuilding aspects of the story.
by Deborah Sheldon
My novel, Devil Dragon, is built around its setting, the Australian bush. The story is about Dr Erin Harris, a scientist who has an unscientific obsession: to find a living Varanus priscus. This giant Australian reptile, which cryptozoologists call the Devil dragon, became extinct some 12,000 years ago but, like Bigfoot or Nessie, there are occasional sightings. Spurred by a credible witness, Erin cobbles together an expedition party consisting of herself, the witness, and his deer-hunting neighbours. They travel into the unexplored heart of a national park. Erin, believing the Devil dragon to be a larger version of the Komodo, is confident she can outwit a specimen. However, the monster that lumbers out of the bush is a savage and unpredictable predator the size of a campervan. To escape, Erin must transform herself from genteel university lecturer to die-hard survivalist.
Devil Dragon required the most intensive world-building of any fiction I’ve written so far. The plotting and research tended to occur side by side, with each one informing the other. For example, I discovered that Australia’s state and national parks teem with feral animals, which led me to include an action sequence that I would otherwise not have imagined. The characters use a range of firearms. Since I’m not a shooter myself, this took me on another in-depth research bender, which then prompted new plot points and fresh character conflicts.
By late 2014, I had decided that the bulk of the novel would take place on an escarpment. There, Erin and the members of her expedition party try to lure a Devil dragon with baits. However, Google Images can only take an author so far; I needed to stand atop an actual escarpment to feed my imagination. That Christmas, my family and I took a holiday to north-eastern Victoria so I could ‘location scout’ for Devil Dragon. We drove to the very top of Mt Buller, a mountain in the Victorian alps of the Great Dividing Range. With one glimpse at the view, my fictitious escarpment came alive in my mind’s eye, and I could ‘see’ the expedition party’s campsite.
Imagery from the peak of Mt Buller infuses my novel:
“Cautiously, she approached the edge.
She had expected a sheer drop in a straight line to the ground. The cartoon cliché of a cliff, she realised, chiding herself. Instead, there was a long, gentle gradient comprised of granite boulders. The boulders were colossal, the size of houses, and stacked together higgledy-piggledy as if a careless giant had thrown them by the handful. Jammed into every fissure and crevice along that wide and deep gradient were plants: eucalypts, shrubs, grasses, even lichen wedged within the tiniest of cracks. At the sweeping hem of the escarpment lay a sea of trees. Beyond that, hazy and blue on the horizon, sat a long line of hills that resembled ocean waves caught in freeze-frame.”
I had the most fun creating the Devil dragon itself. Palaeontologists don’t know much about the actual Varanus priscus, but believe it was related to the modern-day Komodo dragon. I was free to conjure up my own terrifying version… a thrilling prospect, although I had to make this reptile seem genuine.
I used a variety of world-building techniques. Firstly, I embedded the animal within a vividly described and ordinary world, spending weeks researching the flora, fauna and geology of south-eastern Australian bushland. Secondly, to keep my monster realistic and credible, I immersed myself in Komodo dragon biology and behaviour, and consulted with various herpetologists. This allowed me to develop consistent ‘rules’: how does the dragon look, move, sound, smell, act, hunt, eat? Lastly, on a family trip to Darwin in 2015, I spent time observing live crocodiles, both in zoos and during river cruises. And I touched every piece of tanned crocodile skin I could find. These first-hand experiences fuelled my imagination and helped me to dream up the gruesome, ferocious details I needed to complete my monstrous creation.
To find out more abut Deborah and her writing, you can find her on: