Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Blog / The Craft of Writing

Worldbuilding: cities don’t all look the same, at all

Do you happen to remember the Laodd, the great fortress above the city in House of Shadows?

Well, this is the real-life fortress that inspired that one.

This is in Slovenia. I just happened to see a picture somewhere and I totally went head over heels for the whole idea of this fortress. Of course I blew it up in scale and gave it lots and lots of glass windows and poured a waterfall off the cliff next to the fortress, but this image was definitely the inspiration. I found it by googling “fortress in cliff,” I think.

In The White Road of the Moon, I specifically made the city of Riam colorful: “eggshell blue or soft green, madder pink or rich buttercup yellow . . . the colors glowed in the afternoon sun.” This description was inspired by this image of Cinque Terre, Italy:

Later, when Meridy and Jaift and everyone arrive in Cora Talen, they find that here the people “build narrow and tall, with umber-colored brick and slate.” I don’t remember for sure, but I might have been thinking of this image from Provence:

The City in the Lake and The Keeper of the Mist draw more on traditional images of pastoral Europe. Perhaps more like this:

My current WIP is set in a sort of SE Asian ecosystem, so that I’m drawing on that region for ideas about food and cooking styles, crops and wild plants, domestic animals and wild ones, weather and climate, clothing and materials, and definitely architecture. Of course there is an important magical element and naturally the society is quite distinctive, but I’m trying to make it decidedly non-European. Here are some of the images I’m working with as I build the solid underpinnings of the world:

These are images from Thailand, from China, from Bhutan, from Tibet. In the end I think my protagonists, and thus my readers, will get to see a good deal of their world. I look forward to showing it to them.

At some point maybe I’ll go back to a WIP I have sitting here that is set in a sort of alternate Turkey, where much of the landscape is similar to Cappadocia. That will let me draw on the beautiful architecture of the hot, dry, and even desert regions of the world:

One of the things to pay attention to when worldbuilding is the very different architectural traditions and styles that different societies have come up with, and how those fit into their surrounding ecosystems. If you, like me, are a visual writer, then images like these can become windows to the world you are building. Certainly the setting will inform both your characters and their quests.

There’s nothing wrong with medieval Europe as a setting for your story. But so many other beautiful settings are possible as well! Typing “beautiful traditional villages” or “beautiful ancient cities” into Google can be a great way to inspire yourself to reach outside traditional fantasy settings when you’re designing a world.

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4 Comments Worldbuilding: cities don’t all look the same, at all

  1. Elaine T

    Cinque Terre is rather unexpected. I’d imagined the colors of Riam in less intense shades.

    When I see the colors of the Provence photo I think of New Mexico and adobes. The narrow and tall, and umber descriptor kept me from making that mistake.

    That first Asian one is striking. What is it of? at first glance the houses look like hats peeking out of the brush. (notices the caption and wanders off to investigate)… huh I didn’t know Thailand had mountains, I’ve always seen descriptors that made me think it rather like Florida around the Everglads: flat, wet, etc.

  2. Rachel

    Oh, well, I’m sure Riam is toned down compared to that particular image of Cinque Terre. But that’s the image that made me realize that cities don’t have to be drab!

  3. Mary

    Remember that modern day paints are a lot more striking in color and a lot less prone to fading than most eras in history.

  4. Rachel

    Good point, Mary. It’s not an area I know much about, so that’s a detail I could easily forget.

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