I had a ghostwriting client for an epic historical fantasy who insisted that the opening chapter of his novel be dedicated to the arrival of a main character at a seaport and his subsequent trek to the regional capital by caravan. This, in itself, was problematic as it took pages for the story to actually get started. … But even a leisurely intro can be interesting to read if the details on the page paint a vivid picture and illuminate the world.
Okay, isn’t that interesting? Maybe it’s just me, but I find the whole phenomenon of ghostwriting really intriguing, from both the pov of the person who hires the writer and the pov of the person who does the ghostwriting. It’s one of those things that’s hard to quite wrap my mind around, which is why it’s interesting. Bohnhoff’s posts on this subject are good at explaining some of what goes into ghostwriting.
Of course I also agree that a leisurely intro could be fine. I mean, it depends, but I wouldn’t as a rule object to beginning a story with a caravan journey, thus letting the author “paint a vivid picture and illuminate the world.” That basically sounds like something that would work for me. Mind you, I would sort of expect a certain amount of adventure during the caravan journey. Bandits! Sandstorms! Djinn! All three! But just seeing the world would be a benefit of opening with a journey.
But Bohnhoff continues:
He objected that this was not the way he envisioned the [seaport] at all. In his mind, the port—we’ll call it Wedebi—was basically a bunch of tents on a sandy beach inhabited by anonymous characters needed to unload the ship. There were no docks or wharves; the goods had to be taken from the vessels by small boats and carried perilously to shore.
And this takes us to the worldbuilding part. This is a longish post that goes into detail about building a port town in a sensible way, a town that could plausibly exist.
The post ends with a bunch of questions of the kind I never actually ask myself …
- How old is this location?
- Why does it exist and how did it get here? (Bonus points if you describe how it was founded and by whom.)
- How populous is it?
- Who lives here and where do they live?
- What do they eat and where to they get what they eat?
- Is it a sea or river port?
- Is it supported by a farming community that it supports in return?
- Is it a regional capital, financial capital, trade center, religious locus?
- How does trade work here? Is there money or only barter or both?
Because as far as I’m concerned, these questions, while excellent, are the sort that are generally answered in the back of the mind, drawing on a lifetime of paying reasonable attention to the world and/or reading nonfiction or well–researched historical novels …
… except that I do pay more attention these days to saying, “Oh, look at these wide, rolling fields of grain around this city” or whatever, because somehow I seem to have seen a lot of comments lately about fantasy cities that ought to be starving. I think for some readers, cities without agriculture are starting to fall into the same painful category as horses that gallop for hours without dropping dead. No one wants that. So my characters tend to look at fields of waving grain now and then.
Good post, though. Click through if you have a moment.