Barry Wolverton: Top 10 Things I Learned While Writing The Chronicles of the Black Tulip


The Dragon’s Gate Takeover Week continues today, with a really fun guest post from author Barry Wolverton. Check it out below, and then keep reading for more about The Dragon’s Gate — IN STORES TODAY! — and your chance to win a signed copy!

guest-blog_in-postTop 10 Things I Learned While Writing The Chronicles of the Black Tulip
by Barry Wolverton

  1. The bicycle wasn’t invented until the 19th century. Seriously?

In my alternate Seafaring Age, the Dutch East India Company is known as the Dutch Bicycle & Tulip Company, a name I liked for aesthetic reasons and because tulips and bicycles are so emblematic of the Netherlands. My publisher’s helpful copyeditors informed me that the bicycle wasn’t invented until the mid-19th century — more than 200 years after the time period during which my story takes place.

How is this possible? The wheel was invented in Mesopotamia in 3500 B.C.E. (for pottery making, not transportation). Chariots were on the road by 3200 B.C.E., and in between there was the wheelbarrow. And then, apparently, a 5,000-year creative drought in the realm of wheel applications. I didn’t change this part of the story because it seems completely plausible that the bicycle would exist in 1599, and in my “alternate” history it just happened. So there.


  1. Rand McNally wasn’t a real person.

My parents always had these big atlases in the house, and I always thought this big Scottish guy named Rand McNally was writing them. Turns out Rand and McNally were two different people, neither of them Scottish. Oh well. More creative license for me, and so far, no lawsuits from the Rand McNally company!


  1. Dutch folktale is super weird.

And creepy. The Night Demon is a real “Low Country” legend, as is the Boeman, a sort of boogeyman from which Admiral Bowman takes his name. But then the Dutch have a legend about the invention of clothing starch. It comes from Styf, a mischievous elf who would mix up the wooden shoes of Netherlanders when they left them outside the house of someone hosting a party. Oh, the chaos that ensued when Dutch men and women went to find their clogs and go home! Finally Styf was overcome with guilt and repaid the good people of the Netherlands by inventing starch to keep their shirts and linens nice and crisp.


  1. Once upon a time, maps weren’t just maps.

I set the series during this time period in part because it was a great Information Age in its own right, and thus felt contemporary in a way. Maps were reflecting a dramatically changing world, but they were also helping shape the world and guiding, for better or worse, an early form of globalization. They were sources of information, entertainment, and power, prestige items for the wealthy, and great narratives. Rand McNally doesn’t just deal in maps, he deals in hopes and dreams. He runs a media empire.

  1. Old maps told great stories. And by stories, I mean made-up stuff.

Mapmakers don’t get enough credit for their creativity. Maps with big blanks spaces aren’t very compelling, so it wasn’t unusual at all for a mapmaker to fill in the gaps with folklore, rumor, or just weird stuff.

One of the most famous world maps of the 16th century, by Matteo Ricci, describes Russia as a country of dwarves, where both men and women are about a foot high and are constantly devoured by cranes. Which, of course, is why they live in caves and ride goats. Canada, he believed, was populated by mountain people who ate only snakes, ants, and spiders, and people living in the Arctic logically had mouths on top of their heads to catch food and rainwater.

If you were a bored 12-year-old boy like Bren Owen, wouldn’t maps like this make you want to explore the world?


  1. Old maps didn’t always look like maps.

One of my favorite discoveries. I really wanted to play with the idea of “treasure map,” and there are plenty of great stories where old maps are found hidden away somewhere. But it seemed to me that if you wanted to hide a treasure map, the best way would be to make it not even look like a map to would-be thieves and snoops. I found a nice analog in the Drake Medal — the coin Queen Elizabeth had minted to honor Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the world. The coin shows the route he took, but conveniently leaves out important parts because the queen didn’t want anyone else to know how he did it.


  1. There are worse jobs than the Vomitorium.

Raise your hand if you thought cat food testing was done by cats. Anyone? Apparently these humans don’t have to eat the food (unless they want to), but they do have to grope around in huge vats of the stuff to pull out bone and gristle, as if your cat cares. Also, animal manure used as natural fertilizer has to be collected by hand and combed through to make sure it’s free of dangerous bacteria. Remember that the next time you’re complaining about how much organic produce costs.


  1. The hardest thing about having a series of stories that spans the globe is realizing that you aren’t as smart and enlightened as you thought.

As a lover of old adventure books by the likes of H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, I found myself in early drafts leaning on familiar terms like “Dark Continent,” “natives,” and “exotic,” without realizing how unfortunate most of these are now. And for good reason. It’s not always obvious when something is offensive. “Native” as an adjective is very different from a term like “the natives.” And then there’s the minor issue of Bren’s adventure-seeking being made possible by colonialism. I hope, in the story, that I disabused some of his assumptions about that without being preachy or jarring the story out of context.


  1. Even in the bad old days, not all explorers were dudes.

The Dragon’s Gate introduces a new character, the crossdressing magician archaeologist, Lady Jean Barrett. I wondered if such a character would seem wholly implausible for the time period, even given that the story takes place in an alternate 16th century. But a little research turned up two really interesting historical figures: Lady Hester Stanhope and Jeanne Baré. Stanhope was a British socialite-turned-adventurer who is credited with the first modern archaeological excavation of the Holy Land, in 1815. Baré is the first woman to be part of a sailing voyage around the world (1766-69), and she did it disguised as a man. It would take too long to tell their complete stories here, but I encourage you to read more about both.

jeanne-bare lady-hester-stanhope

  1. Not all reviewers are nice.

Okay, I knew this already. But people always ask writers what advice they would give to aspiring writers. They always get the same boring answers — read a lot, keep a journal, etc. All fine and true, but I would say, ask yourself if you’re really prepared to spend countless hours of your spare time writing and revising something that comes from your very soul, sacrificing time with friends and family, only to have some nitwit dump all over you publicly.


Dragon's Gate - Cover FinalAn engrossing fantasy, a high-seas adventure, an alternate history epic—this is the richly imagined and gorgeously realized second book in acclaimed author Barry Wolverton’s Chronicles of the Black Tulip, perfect for fans of The Glass Sentence and the Books of Beginning series.

A magical white jade stone and a map inscribed in bone that may be the key to an even greater mystery—this is the treasure Bren and Mouse have found buried on the Vanishing Island.

Mouse is determined to follow the map to a place called the Dragon’s Gate, convinced it will explain who she really is and the powers she possesses. Bren has had enough adventure for one lifetime and would like nothing more than to return to his father in Map. But nothing goes according to plan when the survivors of the Albatross are rescued by Lady Jean Barrett, a charismatic archaeologist with a sense of destiny.

Barrett is on a quest for the Eight Immortals, ancient artifacts she believes are buried in the tomb of China’s first emperor—the location of which has been hidden for nearly two thousand years. The only way for Bren, Mouse, and Barrett to all get what they want is to work together on a dangerous journey into the heart of China, a kingdom long closed to outsiders, where the greatest secrets about Mouse and Bren are waiting to be unveiled.

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TUESDAY’S CONTEST COMMENTS: Which fun fact from Barry’s list above did you find most surprising? Which one did you enjoy the most?

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2 thoughts on “Barry Wolverton: Top 10 Things I Learned While Writing The Chronicles of the Black Tulip

Add yours

  1. New facts for me here today. I love the mischievious elf! And of course an author has the right to “invent” things and when they were invented in fiction and the alternate history of this book it’s great that there are bikes.

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