While there were more than 150 panels featuring authors of every genre at this year’s BookCon, some of the most popular sessions featured YA speculative fiction and fantasy authors discussing the magic of world-building. Every such panel that PW attended drew overflow crowds of attendees, beginning with Saturday morning’s headliner, Cassandra Clare.

Clare is the author of the Shadowhunter Chronicles, which includes four overlapping series—The Mortal Instruments, The Internal Devices, The Dark Artifices, and, the newest, Eldest Curses—as well as the Magisterium series, written in collaboration with Holly Black.

Interviewed in the Main Hall by Entertainment Weekly associate editor David Canfield, Clare regaled her fans with disclosures about how she builds worlds and develops characters to fill them, and her commitment to linking characters in the various urban fantasy series she writes to those in other series.

One exclusive that she let drop during the 40-minute q & a that made attendees clap for joy was that she is working on her first adult urban fantasy novel, scheduled for publication in 2021.

Asked about her inspiration for writing urban fantasy, Clare said that she enjoys the process of creating a world much like our own, “where there’s magic around the corner. There’s the real world and then another world on top of it” after “taking magic and bringing it in.” But, Clare added, she is committed to historical authenticity, using as an example the point that being gay in 1903 London is different from being gay in the modern day, and that she develops characters and story lines accordingly.

Clare did not realize back in 2007 when her debut novel, City of Bones, was published, that the world inspired by New York City that she had created would expand as much as it has and come to be peopled with so many characters as it has in the last 12 years. It was only after her second book, City of Ashes, was written that she consciously committed to expand upon the universe she had created.

“Having been to this world, I wanted to be able to tell multiple stories,” Clare said, explaining that imagining “new inventions and new things” to add to the world she has created “keeps it interesting” for her to continue writing her novels. She also noted that varying the structure of the various books is also important for her creative process.

Much of the conversation between Clare and Canfield revolved around her latest series, The Eldest Curses, which launched in April with the release of The Red Scrolls of Music.

“It turned out to be really funny,” Clare said about the new series, involving two “badass” characters—Magnus Bane and Alex Lightwood —previously introduced in The Mortal Instruments series, who fall in love. “I felt as if I learned things about [those two characters] that I didn’t know before.” She expanded on this point by disclosing that she does not write from an outline. Instead, she has to write “through the story to see all the pieces.” Magnus and Alec, in fact, were already a couple in the original draft of the new series, she said; she subsequently wrote of how the two fell in love because she thought it would be “interesting” for readers (as well as herself) to know their backstory.

“As we move forward writing books, you come to see structure and how all the pieces fit together in the stories,” Clare said, emphasizing her attention to every detail so as to maintain the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

“It’s easier to build up than to build upon,” she said. “There’s a lot to keep track of,” especially now that characters she introduced in her early books are having children. In order to keep track of her characters, she and her assistant maintain a huge compendium of family trees and diagrams of relationships between characters that includes details about all of them—such as, for example, who owns a particular house.

“I’d have to quit my job if I lost this [compendium],” she joked, adding that she enjoys connecting characters in one series to characters in another because as a reader she always appreciated returning to familiar worlds. Every character, she said, whether primary or secondary, serves an essential function with their story arc. “People bounce off of each other,” she said of her characters. “They are all fully realized and are different people.”

Powerful Magic: Two YA Fantasy Panels

On Sunday morning, Victoria (V.E.) Schwab (the Vengeful trilogy) moderated the panel “Magic and Power” with fellow YA fantasy authors Stephanie Garber (the Caravel trilogy), Margaret Rogerson (Sorcery of Thorns), and Melissa Albert (The Hazel Wood). Directed by Schwab’s questions, each author revealed nuggets about their creative process, world-building, and character development, with all of them stressing that they build worlds around the characters they develop, rather than the other way around. Furthermore, Schwab revealed, she writes her books “in reverse,” from the end to the beginning. But what the panelists emphasized was that while magic is power, there are always unforeseen consequences to using magic.

“Magic in general always has consequences: there is always a cost,” Schwab said, while Garber also wants readers of her Caravel trilogy to understand that “love and immortality cannot co-exist.”

But the greatest superpower that these authors have, they said, is the ability to make other people readers. “To make someone forget who and where they are is power,” Schwab said, disclosing that reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone made her a reader, because it was the first book she ever read during which she completely forgot who and where she was. For Albert, Peter Pan first cast that magic over her.

Garber said that, for her, the greatest impact she wants to have on others is to touch their emotions. “I feel most powerful when I write an ending that makes people cry or just moves them. When I write an ending that makes me cry, I feel like I did it.”

As is to be expected, the four authors all are hard at work on their next projects: books about magic and power. Albert has a new book out in January, and Rogerson is still hard at work on her next novel, which will feature spirits. She disclosed that as part of her research, she visited a psychic, who told her that “there were a lot of ghosts in her future.”

Next up was a more general session, “The Magic of World Building.” It featured horror writer Joe Hill and adult science fiction/fantasy author N.K. Jemisin, as well as two fantasy authors beloved by YA readers, Marissa Meyer (the Renegades series) and Marie Lu (the Legend series).

The authors amplified points made in Clare’s Q&A session as well as in the earlier Magic and Power panel about the process of world-building. For all four, like the previous speakers that morning, world building begins with characters and story arcs. “The world builds as I write,” Lu said, while Jemisin said that her stories “come up with themselves,” and the subsequent world-building is a process of placing those tales in their proper context.

“Explanations suck,” Hill said about world-building. “The less you have to explain to your readers, the more fun they will have.” Meyer added, “You want your readers to feel they are in the heads of your characters.” Just as the characters inhabit their world, so does the reader, and the way that world functions is the same” for readers as for its permanent inhabitants.