A Few Thoughts On Worldbuilding

Most of us, as we begin writing, and begin selling, gradually start to get a handle on what our strengths are as a writer, and what we enjoy writing most of all. One of my strengths, I have been told, is the development of setting, or what is commonly referred to as worldbuilding. Worldbuilding often involves establishing history, politics, culture and geography of your F/SF world, but I’m going to talk about some techniques I rarely see used, here, which, if done right, can lend a whole layer of depth to the world not often enough explored.

For much of this, I’d like to point out that I’m indebted to S.M. Stirling, whose works abound with such things. If you can only read one of his fabulous alternate histories, I suggest The Peshawar Lancers.

Food: Is anything more fundamental to culture than sharing a meal? That’s where deals get done, where people fall in love, where poisonings occur. And yet how often meals are skipped over, or if they are portrayed, are done so in minimal terms, with people eating bland dishes of no significance. The food of a culture tells you what are luxuries, and what are staples. What flavors are favored, and which are disliked.

Art: Religion often plays a part of a fully developed world, and yet how rare is it to see the religious art of a world fully developed, despite the fact that in our own world, religion has inspired a huge percentage of the high arts. Art communicates a great deal of the culture’s values, and can be used to tell its story. Stirling does a wonderful job with this when a protagonist of his, on the dirigible ride to Delhi, contemplates a reproduction of a famous painting that draws on Kipling’s Exodus Cantos while eating a meal in the dining cabin, using food and art simultaneously to draw the protagonist’s mind to her own history.

Music: This is perhaps the hardest of these three to portray, since it’s difficult to convey instrumental sound on the written page. But naming instruments can give you an idea of what is popular and what is not, and writing lyrics can give a feel for whether this is a culture that values arias or ballads or folk verse or chant.

Thus concludes our microlesson today on worldbuilding.

3 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts On Worldbuilding

  1. I especially like what you have to say about religion in worldbuilding. I read an interview with Orson Scott Card where he said basically the same thing.
    That said, in the fantasy novel I’m writing (first draft), most of the action takes place in the wilderness, so art, music, and food are harder to portray. Actually, they do sing songs to learn the common tongue of the dragons, but I don’t portray the lyrics. Also, as time advances and the woodland creatures are convinced to aid our hardy band of six children, hunting becomes problematic, so they end up subsisting on plants.
    In my case, the more I write, the more ideas I come up with, so when I finally get into editing mode once the first draft is complete, I’ll have to go back and smooth out all the inconsistencies, incorporating ideas I came up with in the second half of the book back into the first half.

  2. I enjoy art history, and I noticed how deeply religion influenced art, whether Christian or pagan. In my trilogy WIP, a secondary-world fantasy based on our Greco-Roman era, the characters often have art or objects depicting their religion (picture Greek gods, but far more useful rather than petty and cruel). Whether it’s decor such as a mural, friezes, or caryatids; or items such as cameo cups and amphorae, the theme is typically religious.

    I borrow a Roman drinking habit for a spell: Traditionally salt repels evil creatures, and a character uses the practice of mixing wine with sea water in order to enhance a spell of protection. I’ll mention ingredients that ancient people put in their beer and wine such as meadowsweet, elderflowers, rosehips, etc. Or I’ll say what flowers were used to make the honey they eat or drink (as honeywine). My heroines know a sorceress is brewing medicine because she is making a tisane of dandelions, which smells like a baby’s diaper after it urinates (except I swap “diaper” for “swaddling clothes”). And it is a “tisane” because the Romans didn’t have tea leaves; only the one character who lives near fantasy-counterpart China drinks tea. And plum wine, for that matter.

    I can’t do lyrics; I never got the hang of poetry in school. The most I’ll do is tell you what instruments someone is using. Usually a kithara, because in real life I’ve listened to songs strictly for the guitar solos 🙂 Or I’ll say if the character is singing a canticle “in a liturgical language” that the protagonists don’t know, being an outsider to the sacred mysteries (saves money on hiring conlangers).

    Also for food, I raid cookbooks, or visit blogs of people from relevant cultures. A Persian cookbook provided the ingredient of “barberry” for the dish that one character eats on the way to fantasy-Persia. A Persian blogger mentioned eating rice porridge for breakfast in the winter, so I knew what the inn would serve when the characters reached “Persia.” And everyone writing on ancient Rome knows about Apicius. Did you know they ate French toast in Rome? I don’t call it “Gaulish toast” (neither did they), I simply described what it is.

  3. Pingback: Nerdlife 13: Never Tell Me the Odds – Of Wolves and Men

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