Fresh FIction Box Not To Miss

Isabel Cooper | To Build A Proper World … Takes the SMALL things to work

September 12, 2011

Isabel CooperNO PROPER LADYWorld-building is one of the most difficult parts of writing a world that differs in any way from ours. It’s easy enough to figure out the main changes, like “magic works” or “dinosaurs are still around”—you probably have them in mind from the beginning, or odds are you wouldn’t be writing that particular world—but then you have to think about what smaller changes they’d cause. Do the people in your world have surgeons, or does magic solve all health issues. If not, why not? How does the freeway system adapt when people are riding stegosauruses? And so on.

That’s hard. It’s also a lot of fun—like putting together a puzzle, but generally without that moment when you realize that the dog ate three of the pieces.

When I was writing NO PROPER LADY, I got to do two separate and intertwined pieces of world-building. One was Simon’s world, which was 1888 as we knew it on the surface—only with all sorts of secret knowledge and magic underneath. (I drew a great deal on actual occult societies of the time, though I took considerable liberties in the service of fiction.) The other was Joan’s world: a world very different from either Simon’s or ours, but which, for the most part, only shows up in her descriptions and memories. Finding just the right amount of information to put in was a delightful challenge, especially because having Joan talk about her world helped to emphasize how foreign she was to Simon’s.

The following scene is one where Joan tells Simon the basics of her time. I had a lot of fun writing it—figuring out what the world was like, how much Joan would talk about it, and how she would put that description. I hope you enjoy reading it!

“The spells in the book opened a doorway,” Joan said, “and the Dark Ones came through. Not just the little ones, the cerberi and their friends, but the big boys.”

“The Lords of the Places Beyond,” said Simon, remembering the title of a book he hadn’t wanted to read.

“Yeah,” said Joan. “Them.”

The thunder sounded very loud. “But people survived,” Simon said. “People must have survived.”

It was raining now. The water ran over Joan’s face, coursing down her cheeks like tears, but her eyes were calm and her voice was steady. “Sure. The old governments built tunnels for war. That’s where I grew up. That’s where everyone lives—everyone except the Dark Ones’ pets. Or livestock.”

“And you came back? I take it this is more than a sightseeing trip.”

Joan was silent for several minutes. In the dim light, she looked insubstantial, ghostlike. “We were losing,” she said. “We fought for four generations. We did a good job. We put some marks on the sons of bitches. But there were fewer of us every year and more of them.”

Looking away from her face, Simon could see a long twisting scar on her upper arm. A rope might make a scar like that. Or a very thin knife. Or a tentacle.

“About seven years ago,” Joan said, “one of our priests got visions. Very specific ones: a name, a year, and the kind of patterns you need for real power. The kind you need to send someone back and let them change things.”

Joan’s voice fell when she spoke again, but Simon still heard her clearly. “That’s our only chance now.”

© Isabel Cooper, Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2011


It’s Terminator meets My Fair Lady in this fascinating debut of black magic and brilliant ball gowns, martial arts, and mysticism.

England, 1888. The trees are green, the birds are singing, and in 200 years demons will destroy it all. Unless Joan, a rough-around-the-edges assassin from the future, can take out the dark magician responsible. But to get close to her target she’ll need help learning how to fit into polite Victorian society to get close to her target.

Simon Grenville has his own reasons for wanting to destroy Alex Reynell. The man used to be his best friend—until his practice of the dark arts almost killed Simon’s sister. The beautiful half-naked stranger Simon meets in the woods may be the perfect instrument for his revenge. It will just take a little time to teach her the necessary etiquette and assemble a proper wardrobe. But as each day passes, Simon is less sure he wants Joan anywhere near Reynell. Because no spell in the world will save his future if she isn’t in it.


Debut author Isabel Cooper lives in Boston and maintains her guise as a mild-mannered project manager working in legal publishing. She only travels through time the normal way and has never fought a demon, but she can waltz. Her next book, NO HONEST WOMAN, will be in stores in April 2012. For more information, please visit

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