The mists have floated in and the world around you is a dull grey featureless soup. You are 15 000 words in and all of a sudden you have no idea where the hell your main character lost the magical beans or where Aunt Maggy hid the little girls favourite fluffy bunny or behind what streetside market in New York the murderer tossed the broken glock. You realise the raiding party has been riding in circles and it would take the riders 4 years by horse instead of 3 days to get back home at “realistic horse speeds”. The merchant ship carrying gold and spice has safely evaded the pirates and is now off course, pushed by a fierce easterly wind – to where and how long will it take to get there? The hermit trudged down from his hilltop cave for his yearly pilgrimage to civilisation, secretly looking forward to a mug of what? Warm beer, honey mead, green berry juice, vodka, cappuccino or a fine aged burgundy. Are there even grape farms nearby or does it have to be shipped in? By what, merchant carts or semi-truck and trailer from the cold north? Or is it a warm north? Anabell is on her way to visit her granny in a small town just south of Rome and she missed her train – hold on.. is there a train running south and does it actually go through Cori?
What would give most people a headache fascinates me. I have mentioned it before, but I love world-building. Probably too much. Fantasy & Sci-fi authors almost always have to spend a abnormal amount of time (compared to other genre authors) building the worlds in which their novels take place – even if it’s based in a current time, real Earth world, they still have to figure out things like magic systems or how far technology has advanced or what technology the invading aliens have brought with them. I expect that more mainstream authors also have to do a fair amount of research to ensure their settings and things their characters get up to are sufficiently “real” for their readers to suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy the story. Sometimes it could just be a quick Google to find out what times the trains usually leave from Frankfurt in the mornings or having a coffee with a retired miner to listen to how hoarse his voice sounds after years of breathing coal dust or something more involved like taking a trip to investigate the back streets of Paris where your seamstress makes embroidered tea-cosies for lonely old ladies. Either way, it’s obvious that very few authors can write a make believe story without a little research on the side. Sure the author could just make everything up, but there are always those readers who will pick up on rubbish. Have you ever watched an episode of CSI or one of those hacker movies? Yah right, full DNA tests back in an hour and 2048-bit encryption decoded on an iphone 4 in 30 seconds (No true hacker would use an Iphone – come on, at least jailbreak the thing!). Sure the author could just write “and he had a long-island ice tea and passed his practical scuba diving level 43 test with the best score ever recorded.” The reader is likely to understand if the drunken sot tries to kiss a great white but is there actually a level 43 scuba practical certification?
The suspension of disbelief is critical in Fantasy & Sci-Fi and I believe that one of the ways authors do this is to build a believable world for their characters to interact in. I have stumbled many times while writing (especially in ‘pantser’ mode) when I realise that I have written myself into a corner (not a plot problem) where I quite honestly have no idea where a character is physically going in the fantasy world I have created. I can be mid sentence and stop. Oh crap, I have no idea what season it is or what town, city or even mountain range my character has just stumbled into or if they even have corn-bread in my fantasy world. I do not even know what the main economy of the region is or how big the city is. Or how long it realistically would have taken someone to walk 100 miles following a beaten up wagon track. Sure I could just make it up, but then I have realised that I have created a time warp and my superhuman beggar has literally flown the 300 miles while another character has taken 3 months to travel the same relative distance in another part of the world.
There is plenty of advice on research and world-building out there… Everything from “just write and fix the inconsistencies later” to “yes, your elves need a conlang of at least 100 words”. Both options have their pros and cons – fixing logical geographic issues later can potentially mess up more than a chapter (has happened to me) and not everyone of us is a Tolkien and can come up with multiple invented languages but a few words for my furry creature could make her seem more real.
I found a few guides on worldbuilding – try this or maybe this – but to be honest, I have not followed them. I have taken only what I need and gone my own route. I realised early on that I need to world-build, write until I hit a snag and then create my world a little more. It’s not efficient and disrupts the flow of writing incredibly, but I don’t always know what I need until I start writing about it. It’s fascinating to discover that you have no idea what kind of food your characters will eat or what kind of political or religious hierarchy exists. The research to figure this all out is great fun (for me at least) – so much fun that it makes me feel guilty that I should rather be writing. Lol.
One important concern is that it takes time. Lots of time. I figure I have put more time into world-building than I have into writing stories in my imaginary world. The map above is a work in progress (WIP) of just one of the 5 continents of my invented world and it has taken at least 20 hours to do, probably longer. I made up (and will likely work on forever) an entire world on paper, with continents, mountains, rivers, islands, weather patterns and ocean currents. I have cultures living in each section in the world, what their “claim to fames” are, what type of people they are, where they have come from, what economies they use, what kind of politics, what they like to do in their spare time, what the national foods are… tons of stuff. I have created multiple magic systems (for those civilisations that have magic) and invented some mythology around the “good vs. evil” concept that every fantasy needs.
On the positive side, the more I put into building this fantasy world of mine, the more ideas I have for stories and the more I realise that the plot I am working from is flawed and needs correcting (yes, I see that as a positive). For example, the book I started at Nano last year (based on this world) is not actually one book. I realised after the fact that it is at least two separate full size novels intertwined and set in the same world. There is simply too much going on (in my opinion – and I am the author) to put it into one book. I also realised that the timeline I am considering is out of sync… Events, both current and historic are out of whack across the various cultures and peoples involved – it’s like I have a history where an asteroid hit the Earth and wiped out everyone but one culture had 1000 extra years to recover compared to others. Huh? It was a depressing realisation – I could hardly look at the work in Dec ’12/Jan ’13 until I realised that maybe this was a good thing and I could focus my ‘creation’ and write less epic and more heroic fantasy with the intention of linking it all in a ‘fantastic world’. Maybe I am laying the groundwork for multiple books? I just hope that I don’t end up biting off more than I can chew and I would like to publish before I get too much more grey.
I love having delusions of god-hood. Hmm. How about a story about world-building that turns out to be real? Parallel dimensions spring up from the thoughts of the autistic boy mumbling to himself at the back of the class. I’ll take a cut of the royalties please.
Gotta go figure out where to put the cities on my map. Oh crap, there isn’t a water source nearby – ah wait, an underground river system – but its infested with rabid piranha fish that speak.