With Worldbuilding, Every Detail Counts

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In a comment to my post last week one of our readers (Thanks Alan!) asked about the level of detail we put into our worldbuilding. The question, I think, was prompted by my description of the details I put into my character development, and in many ways I consider the background work I do for my characters, and the work I do for my worlds to be very similar.

I was trained as a historian — I’ve got the Ph.D, to prove it. And I believe that if my academic background has done nothing else for me, it has at least given me an appreciation of the complexity and richness of the human past and its influence on today’s world. People — characters — are, at least in part, the product of where they come from: their family background, their upbringing, their past experiences. Nations — or kingdoms, if we’re in an epic fantasy setting — are, at least in part, the product of their histories: wars they’ve won or lost, political movements and their aftermath, great men and women who shaped cultural trends. A person’s religious background can play a role in defining her outlook on life; a nation’s religious heritage can do the same for its society. Someone can be influenced by the books he reads or the music he hears or the art he loves; a society can be influenced by its artistic, literary, and musical luminaries. The similarities are unmistakable.

When I do my worldbuilding, I try to take all these elements, and others, into account. Just as I develop detailed backgrounds for my characters, I create histories and cultures for my worlds. I usually start with a map, and I spare no detail. My historical work was in environmental history, and so I’m quite conscious not only of how human activity has impacted the earth, but also how climate and terrain shape human behavior — patterns of settlement, economic activity, even cultural expression. I then work out political histories, focusing on relations between kingdoms or nations (wars, treaties, etc.) and, at least for the most important of my countries, internal events (successions of kings, or changes in forms of government — that sort of thing). I work out economic issues — if one country is located along the coast and another is up against a mountain range and a third is in a desert, they’re going to have different economic specialties and needs, right? What does this mean for trade and relative wealth? I develop religious traditions, often several. How do peoples and institutions tied to the various faiths get along with one another? Was religious tension the cause of the aforementioned wars, or did it have more to do with trade or territorial concerns?

And then there is some of the nitty-gritty detail that can make the difference between a world that seems flat and boring, and one that comes alive for the reader. What kinds of musical, artistic, literary, and dramatic cultural traditions does each nation have? A lot of this worldbuilding happens not in those early days when I’m doing background work for the book or books, but as I’m writing, when I discover a need. For instance, in Rules of Ascension, the first book of my Winds of the Forelands series, I have an important character, an assassin, actually, who sings both for his daily bread and as a way of concealing his true profession. Creating the music that he and his partner sang was tremendous fun. I believe that it also enhanced the other aspects of my worldbuilding, giving the world another dimension that readers might not have missed had it not been there, but which they appreciated nevertheless. In my first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle, I mention a literary figure from the world’s past who, I think, serves a similar purpose. I’ve also used small historical events — things that really have no bearing on the main narrative, but that add to the richness of the world — to do much the same thing.

And really, that’s the point. Take a look at the books of Guy Gavriel Kay, or of Frank Herbert, or of Tolkien, or J.K. Rowling. Part of what makes their worldbuilding so strong is the extensive background work they do before they begin writing their tales. But part of it is also the stray detail that gets thrown in, seemingly as an afterthought. Those details hint at a larger, richer, more complex world. They can make the difference between a world being merely the setting for a story and it being a place that readers feel they visit each time they open your book. So when you’re doing your worldbuilding, don’t limit yourself to just the big events and trends. Take a little time, either beforehand or as you write, to include smaller, more subtle stuff. These details may not change the trajectory of your story; they don’t have to. If they make your readers feel that your world is a living, breathing place, they will have served their purpose.

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26 comments to With Worldbuilding, Every Detail Counts

  • I know that the Character Keeper is supposed to be able to be used for world building, but I haven’t been able to wrap my brain about how to use the software for more than just the mythology

  • David, great post! Worldbuilding has to be done in every genre, but I had no idea what it meant to do *real* world building when I was writing in the mystery field. I totally subconsciously thought (in the back of my oh-so-superior mystery/thriller writing mind) that it would be *easy*. I’d just be making stuff up, right? (Slaps own foolish head.) So not right. I’d read fantasy for years (read your first series straight through long before we ever met) and had not stopped to consider what would be involved.

    And then I tried to write my first fantasy…

    I learned fast that it was anything *except* easy, with the threads of life and society not just involved in the process (as in mystery), but changed, bent, intertwined, rewoven into a whole new cloth. Every new thing introduced in the imaginary world affected every other thing. And I was writing about *Earth*. (Okay, an alternate Earth, but still.) My mystery writing brain took a beating. I wish I’d had your post before I started. Or…maybe not. I may have never tried to write fantasy. And I am so glad I did!

  • I haven’t been using Character Keeper yet, because right now it’s only available for Mac users if we’re using parallels or boot camp to run Windows on the computer. But basically I’d guess that you’d be able to enter various kingdoms or countries as “characters” and then define them with other subcategories. You could certainly use character keeper for not just mythology, but also for historical figures. And just as you can enter kingdoms as “characters” you can do the same with religions, with historical events, with cultural figures. You’d have to take some of the pre-defined category names with a grain of salt, but once you got beyond that I think it would be quite useful. Would one of my fellow MW pals care to comment further on this?

  • Thanks for the comment, Faith. (It hadn’t posted yet when I replied to Axisor’s question.) Having read your work it certainly seems that you mastered worldbuildiing pretty quickly. Your initial point, though, is well taken. Worldbuilding is more involved in our genre, but it happens in all writing to some degree. Sometimes we’re bringing to life a place and time from our own world’s past. Sometimes we’re creating a “present”. But whatever were doing, we are always trying to evoke a sense of place. Your book, Blackwater Secrets, does that brilliantly. It’s our world, not an alternate one. But it’s a part of the country few of us know as intimately as you do (the Bayou, for those unfamiliar with the book), and you make it come alive in so many ways. Creating a setting is really just another way of saying “worldbuilding.”

  • Awww shucks. (Scuffs toes in dirt, [carefully protecting the broken ones]) Thanks.

  • Not only do little “throw-away” bits give more flavor but they can create new dimensions to a story that weren’t planned for. Example — why none other than David B. Coe’s musical assassin. While it is just a small part of his character in the first book, I loved in Book 3 all the scenes of rehearsals and auditions and such. There was a world you don’t often see in other fantasy novels that not only made this world fresher, but also — when considering the vicious nature of the musician/assassin — made the character both more real and more threatening. The point here is not to butter up David, though I suspect he’s smiling by now, but to say that all those little details sprinkled in at the last moment can often give more to building a world and a story than all the important/necessary work done before writing.

  • Thanks for the comment, Stuart. Those scenes in Bonds of Vengeance were enormously fun to write and, as you say, allowed me to introduce both new aspects of the world, and new insights into Cadel’s character.

    I think it also bears mentioning here that buttering me up is, and will always be, a valid use of this comment space. Please, feel free. All of you.

  • I’ll mention the other side of the coin; knowing when to stop. I’ve read books before that I put down and never went back to because the writer didn’t know when enough was enough on the detail. Sometimes a story can be lost in world info and minutiae. There are times when I don’t really care about what kind of tobacco a character is smoking or where it comes from or what special time it’s harvested or how it’s harvested or who has to harvest it with special contraptions and why. Sometimes I just want to get back to the story.

  • An excellent point, Daniel. There’s nothing wrong with developing lots and lots of detail about our worlds or our characters. As I said last week, authors need to know far more about the background of their books than they ever show their readers. But that last part is key. Just because you know everything imaginable about Herjean shipbuilding, doesn’t mean your readers should be forced to read everything imaginable about it….

  • Daniel asked me about research materials for castle life for medieval worldbuilding — the question is in the comment thread for my publicity post from Friday, but I thought I’d keep the answer here under the worldbuilding heading. Several of the sources I used when writing about castle life were books from the university library here in town, and I have to admit that I’ve lost track of those sources (though I’m pretty certain that I returned them to the library….). I have a few books that I brought home from Wales when my wife and I visited there many years ago. These were small books on life in the various castles we visited — Caernarfon, Conwy, and Beaumaris — and they were enormously helpful in that they contained maps of the towns that grew up around the castles, as well as descriptions of the fortresses themselves and accounts of what life was like in the castles. I also have to admit that I found two children’s books on castles that were enormously helpful: Stephen Biesty’s CROSS-SECTIONS: CASTLE, and David MacAuley’s CASTLE. Both are surprisingly helpful given the intended audience. I should also add that just walking around in castle ruins in Wales, seeing the size of the corridors and getting a feel for the layout of the structures, taught me a great deal.

  • Nothing beats that first-hand experience. Awhile back, I visited Ireland. The castles there surprised me in how few rooms each contained (basically, an enormous great hall surrounded by two or three small bedrooms — that’s it), how narrow the corridors were, and how impossible the winding stairs were. This last point in particular got me. I kept thinking, there’s no way an Errol Flynn could do anything on these stairs but either fall down or say “Stop the fight” and daintily work his way along.

  • ** DavidBCoe wrote: I should also add that just walking around in castle ruins in Wales, seeing the size of the corridors and getting a feel for the layout of the structures, taught me a great deal. **

    I agree 100 percent. I have several shelves groaning under the weight of books on castles, fortresses, medeval towns, etc… But it was the time I spent walking through castles and walled towns in Germany, France and England that inspired me to actually stop reading and write. Indeed, I read SF almost exclusively until my first tour of duty in Fulda, W. Germany, with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (Blackhorse, Sir!). It didn’t take long before I was reading Fantasy almost exclusively, and those all elusive story ideas started pestering me. Of course, being a soldier, my stories tend toward the POVs of soldiers, who just happend to live in castles. Nice, huh?

  • Stuart, yes! The stairways amazed me, too. And Nancy. In fact, we were there with our older daughter who was only 2 months old at the time, and Nancy made me carry the baby up and down all the stairways because she was too afraid to do so herself.

    Yeah, Tom, that does work out well. 😉 And yeah, something about seeing those castles and cities is incredibly exciting. I was still in the middle of my first series when we visited Wales, but that was where I decided that my next series would have castles! Lots of castles!

  • Heh, I’ll keep the advice in mind for doing a walk-through when I make enough to finally get a chance to take a trip overseas. 😉

    Although, Loveland, Ohio has a (from what I can tell from reading about it) pretty realistic castle:
    http://www.lovelandcastle.com/

    I may just have to check that out.

  • Now what about those times when the story is about some ‘throw away’ detail?

    The Helsinki Ogre Men’s Chorus was doing Handel’s Oratorio for Infra Basso at the Civic on Friday night. Timothy “Tiny Tim” McDonald would be performing the rarely attempted ur basso solo in the ninety minute program. An event, it is said, known to cure chronic constipation. My first quandry was whether to ask Kathy to go with me, or Alice. Unfortunately, Kathy is prone to migraines, and ogre infra vocals tend to trigger them if her charms are glitching. Alice on the other hand is an elf, and she has a hard time forgiving ogres for once eating elves. Not that she can’t do it, but pressure at work has the effect of making her racism worse than usual.

    You can guess what the story is going to be about. :)

  • Judging from the stuff you’ve posted here, Alan, I have the sense that you write interesting stories….

  • […] David B. Coe explains why With Worldbuilding, Every Detail Counts. […]

  • A few books I found useful (in case you can’t make it to a real castle) are by Frances and Joseph Gies, with titles such as: Life in a Medieval Village, Life in a Medieval Castle, Life in a Medieval City, etc. These books are not standard text books or standard reference books, the end results being they are fun to read.

  • Thanks for the titles, Alistair. I may be buying those as well, though I have no plans to write another castle book any time soon.

  • Alistair: Funny thing, I just ordered the Daily Life in Medieval Times hardback, which is their compiled works. It sounded like a good read. Got it coming from Alibris.

  • David,

    You’re welcome. :)

    I must confess I do it more in the hopes somebody will read it and ask themselves, “What could I do with this?” It’s a long story, involving clinical depression and Aspergers Syndrome. That said, I do thank you for the encouragement.

  • Since David ‘asked’ for a story, here’s one with a bit of world building detail from yours truly.

    The kid was finally just a pile of bones. Not enough flesh left on them to even make them twitch. That seemed to be the case with every patch of Dead Lands around the world ever Saint Tom of Hillcrest took up residence in Shanghai; the restless dead infesting them were starting to rot, and rot at an accelerated rate.

    Why ever it happened, this deceased 15 year old boy was now safe to handle. So now a city maintenance crew was raking up the remains, and I was there on behalf of the police, ready to take the bones in as evidence for use in the criminal case against the friends who’d bullied him into entering this particular patch of Dead Land in downtown San Diego.

    The crew chief moved carefully, making sure to never reach between the bars separating the Dead Land from the living world. Doing that, reaching in, still meant instant death, and instant animation as one of the living dead. He maneuvered the bones carefully, easing them through the bars. The pelvis and skull he used a charm to levitate up and over. But charms of that type are expensive, and have been known to glitch near Dead Lands. And the city isn’t about to use anything mechanical that could spread Dead Land soil about. Tends to expand Dead Land territory.

    But finally it was done. With the exception of a few small bones the skeleton of a once teenage boy was spread out on the sidewalk before us. There were still a few quivering and twitching bits of muscle on those bones, but now carrion beetles could deal with it.

    We already knew why he’d done it, the damn fool, the seances were long over. His tormentors had been convicted and sentenced. Prison in the case of the adult, remedial for the other adolescents. Other than this one appeal entered by a buttinski attorney for one kid, the case was closed.

    This, really, was about closure. Giving the boy’s parents—a nice goblin couple who’d been waiting a few years for the moment—the chance to lay their son’s remains to rest in hallowed ground. To say good-bye and come to terms with their loss.

    Except for the skull. The skull would be acting as the anchor when we called the lad back one last time, to give testimony at the hearing set to determine if another teenager was properly convicted and sentence for the crime of encouraging self-destructive behavior. Once that hearing was done, the conviction upheld, and a fool of a lawyer reprimanded the object would rejoin the rest of the skeleton in the grave. Then the case would be done.

    I lit a small cone of incense and placed it before the iron fence separating a few square feet of cursed earth from the living world. Added a short prayer that was duly noted by the Celestial Court and added to the billions of like prayers made over the years since the start of the Lich Kings War back in 1965. Forty-four years, and now we were seeing progress. I guess the mass of requests was finally starting to have effect.

    I left the coroner’s office to handle the remains and walked over to my car. More work at the office of course; a serial killer stalking downtown—and the Professor wanted to talk to me about that, a locked room mystery with no sign of gating or teleportation, and a revenant kobold who refused to accept the fact his death was not homicide, and thus he had no justification for his murder of his killer. Typical workload when you’re a homicide detective in this town.

    My coffee was cold when I got in the car. Starbucks just can’t get their warming charms right.

  • Thanks for letting us read this, Alan. I like the worldbuilding very much, as well as the appropriately “noir” voice. Great ending line, too.

  • I must confess, Detective Sergeant Thomas Malory (his dad was a huge fan of Le Mort de Arthur) is my favorite creation. The world building? Just details of life one would note in such situations. Could be better done of course.

    Again, this vignette is provided in the hopes others can use it in their own way. Tis always my goal to encourage thinking and creativity. For ideas are never sparked by anything, but by how we look at what we see, and how we interpret our perceptions.

    If people knew what raccoons are really like, then every talking raccoon would work for Mexican drug cartels.