Worldbuilding: building a word to believe in

Here’s an interesting post at Book View Cafe by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff: New Writers Ask: What goes into building a world?

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.

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7 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: building a word to believe in”

  1. There was a point early in my WIP where I had a character sit on a … and I had to stop and decide whether they had chairs or not. Who invented chairs and when? What level of technology and resources is required for chairs? Why does everyone in historical Korean dramas sit on the floor? Could it be because the floors were heated from underneath? How were my characters’ homes heated? Took me down quite the rabbit hole, but I ended up having to answer most of those questions just to decide what my characters were going to sit on!

    I agree that a well-developed world is worth spending narrative time on, so long as you care about the character who is journeying through it and there’s some important (plot or character) reason they have to get somewhere. There are some books whose characters are just an excuse to wander through the world, and as amazing as the world may be I inevitably lose interest after a while.

  2. And . . . I’m procrastinating actually writing right now because doing so would take me down just such a rabbit hole. *pained smile*
    It started with the really cool idea of phytoremediation – that a certain type of tree (and, apparently, other plants) can actually leach heavy metals from the soil, which they use as an insecticide or for other purposes. What an interesting adaptation!
    . . . Which led me to wonder how people would use that ability to their advantage, and now somehow I’ve got on to what that would make the power structures of the region look like (a weird jump, I know, but that’s the way it goes sometimes).

  3. Kim, that’s a great illustration of worldbuilding! I love that. And now I’m really curious, why DO they sit on the floor? Shortage of wood, I would have assumed, but perhaps that is not why? Maybe chairs/floors is a purely cultural choice?

    EC, yes, I believe for long-term phytoremediation, poplars are a typical choice, because they grow so fast, pull up so much water, and lock toxins up in biomass quite quickly compared to slow-growing trees or anything herbaceous. But … now I’m trying to imagine how that could impact the power structure of a region … That may be harder to explain than chairs.

  4. Well, you see, in this story artisans use the resins (which can be quite naturally colorful, as in the Seve Bleue tree of New Caledonia) to make all kinds of things, and another group also extracts the metal to use for alloys. And the people who originally modified the trees are continuing their work, spreading the forest out to all the places that were contaminated. All of these processes require very different handling of the forests, which inevitably means that they are working at cross purposes.
    None of this, by the way, will make it into the story proper, which is primarily about breaking a contagious curse. And this whole tangent started from wondering how people might mimic stained glass if they live in a forest with no access to sand.
    But since I pretty much write about one secondary world as Tolkien did, this will all help give that world depth – and probably spawn more story ideas later.

  5. I recommend Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair: A Natural History by Witold Rybczynski, but the short version is that most cultures sit on the floor. It is chairs that are odd.

  6. Thank you, Mary, that looks like an excellent resource! And my library even has it!

    Yes, E.C., that is a very cool idea! Also the seve bleu tree is fascinating.

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