As a junior at Yale, I was the only learning disabled student I knew and semi-terrified that I was an admission mistake. I also was painfully earnest about cultivating the “life of the mind.” The previous summer, I had revisited the first books I had read by myself, fantasies all of them. So the genre was in the back of my mind, but I wasn’t searching for an epic idea. It just happened.
Specifically, it just happened in a particularly boring English seminar on Shakespearian tragedy and ancient Greek tragedy. Fascinating syllabus, underwhelming lecture. Ever the academic keener, I was jotting down notes. Back then, I still wrote mostly in a phonetic script, especially for words I had never seen spelled. For example, I might write the word “onomatopoeia” as “onohmonohpeeah.” Next to me sat another junior with whom I had something of a rivalry. We had taken several English classes together and often butted heads about interpretations. I both disliked and grudgingly respected him. At this particular moment, he had stopped listening to the lecture and was eyeing my notes. “Wow,” he whispered while tapping on my phonetic shorthand, “you really did ride the short bus to school.”
I think I said something inane like “Tell me about it,” when in my mind I had this image of pulling my misspelled words off the page and using them like a boxing glove to punch him in the face.
I was still steaming after class as I walked back to my residential college. It was a beautiful dark, late-autumn day: the first snow of the year seems only moments away. Yale was built in imitation of Oxford and Cambridge: gothic arches, stone spires, the whole bit. My residential college, Trumbull College is particularly beautiful, abutting the magnificent stain glass windows of Sterling Memorial Library. I found myself wandering around Trumbull’s neo-gothic courtyards and dreaming of clubbing my rival with physically real sentences. In particular, I paced the Potty Court: a stone courtyard that houses a semi-famous stone gargoyle sitting on a toilet.
Suddenly, the idea for Spellwright bloomed in my imagination. In a world where written language could be made physically real, universities would be vitally important. They might have even more spectacular gothic architecture and living gargoyles. In this world, authors would be terribly powerful and, because words had to be physically created, their muscles would be as important as their brains. And of course, being dyslexic would be really, really dangerous. How then would the magic spells behave? At the time I was studying biochemistry, specifically how the language of DNA made proteins that affect the physical world. I decided that magical language would behave like organic macromolecules: it would have to fold into a correct conformation to become effective.
About an hour later, I had an outline for a young spellwright whose touch caused any text to misspell. Turning that into a novel, however, took eight more years.