Enriching the soil

A big part of SF and Fantasy writing is the world-building – creating the illusion of an entire culture out there that exists independently of the story you’re telling. If the illusion is well done, the piece feels more solid and will often be much stronger even though the world-building doesn’t directly impact the characters or plot (it does, and should, impact them indirectly by informing their choices and their view of how their world works – Athena Hera Sinistra’s shock and confusion dealing with Eden in Sarah’s DarkShip Thieves is a good example of how this works).

So how do you do it?

The reality is that many authors “cheat”. Just as plots are borrowed wholesale from history and have the serial numbers filed off, so too are settings. The best borrowings enrich the story soil by working with the plot and characters to make the whole piece stronger. Pratchett’s Discworld books are probably the best example of this: Ankh-Morkpork is sufficiently developed that the city is damn near a character in its own right, complete with interesting history, landmarks, and of course the river Ankh. The broad base of a medieval European city is there, with the Discworld version of early Victorian industry, and such a collection of bits and pieces from different places and times that the effect is much like a place that has grown and evolved from its earliest settlement.

Just how much Pratchett has borrowed from different parts of history (and any other field of knowledge he can get hold of) is astonishing. I’ve yet to encounter an obscure bit of historical trivia that wasn’t at minimum a throwaway line in a Discworld book – but I doubt Pratchett is going consciously “Oh, I’ll do a piss take on the Peelers next.” No, what he’s doing is absorbing an eclectic mix of odd facts (he said at the last North American Discworld Convention that he collects books of obscure Victoriana and history) and they take a twist in his brain before emerging into something that looks and feels fresh – but if you look you can see the original source there. The clacks in Going Postal did exist. They were used in France about 50 years before the telegraph got started – but not quite the way Pratchett revisioned them for the Discworld.

There’s also explicit borrowings. I won’t spoiler anything, but Sarah’s A Few Good Men has very strong echoes (deliberately) of the American Revolution. There are hints there of pre-revolutionary France as well – also deliberate, and Sarah has said that Liberte Sea City will have a French-style revolution which will end about as well as the real one did (badly). Those who know their history will find A Few Good Men and its direct sequels have a much deeper resonance for it. Oh, yes. Buy the book. It’s that good.

My method is to not explicitly borrow anything, but to set up resonances. If a culture has names that sound vaguely Celtic, they’ll have cultural patterns that follow the appropriate Celtic model, and their history will have echoes of one of the Celtic nations. Similarly English-y names will go with an English-y culture and an English-y kind of history. If I want it really alien, I’ll use patterns that I’ve built myself and build in stressors to the culture that force it in a direction likely readers will find very unfamiliar. What I’m doing is letting people’s subconscious pattern-recognition do the heavy lifting for me – and I have no shame about this. If there’s something that’s not likely to be in the common view of “what medieval English life was like” (as an example), I’ll do the groundwork so it doesn’t surprise Joe Reader too much. Otherwise the general idea, however incorrect it is, is enough to give the feel of something bigger.

Yes. I admit it. I use tropes and collective ignorance to hook my readers and leave them with something a bit more than they expected. Go thou oh lazy writer, and do thee likewise.




15 thoughts on “Enriching the soil

  1. Just don’t get stuck in your world(s) and forget to come out and tell the rest of us its stories!

    Oh, the stories Tolkien DIDN’T tell. Imagine what he might have done had people been pestering him for more tales of dwarves.

    And I would have read every word of Heinlein’s Luna – had he told us more.

    Even the worlds of Myst – the kids and I devoured what there was, still look at a place (a wooden walk through a secluded back part of a local park) and say, “Isn’t this Myst-like!” as a way to own it more.

    1. Oh yes. I adored the Myst games – there’s some good things being done semi-kind-of-open-source-ish, but the company itself isn’t able to make more Myst games and are relying on the fan community to add content to the online version.

      The last time I checked, there were the kind of turf wars and petty one-upmanship that develops in a lot of groups 😦

  2. I’ve been intrigued by how far you can run with bits of a familiar culture. Say, take the samurai of Japan, with more direct imperial control over the clans, add a dash of northern Italy, but make the main characters descendents from pack-dwelling predators. There’s just enough familiar that readers go, “Ok, cool” before going “whoa, that’s weird in a good way.”

    1. Oh, yes. And what they know about the source cultures will get subconsciously attached to yours fleshing the whole thing out even more.

      And that is an awesome concept. Do tell us more about it

      1. The Azdhagi organize themselves into lineages, tracing their descent to a legendary (or real) ancestor. At one time the lineages were packs, with a dominant male pack leader (later the nobility) who acted for the pack when packs had disputes over land, laws, economic matters, what have you. After a set of three disasters, two of which were self-inflicted, the ruling King-Emperor declared that there were no more packs – all Azdhagi belonged to one pack, organized by lineage. A few independent settlements remained as safety valves for those absolutely determined to go their own way. The King-Emperor seems to be the final source of all authority, but the Pack, speaking through the Great Lords, can overrule and even depose a King-Emperor if his actions are deemed to be prejudicial. It’s a terrifying sight when the Pack takes action — twenty or thirty armed quadrupedal reptiles, all massing 150-200 kg, standing shoulder to shoulder, all of one will and voice.

        The society is semi-feudal. The nobility act as the heads of the lineages and serve in the military and government positions. Talented commoners can become nobles, and some of the most prosperous lineages come from common ancestors. Only nobles can carry weapons in public, but even ordinary Azdhagi have very sharp teeth and talons and are quite willing to use them if their honor is affronted. Although they have very high technology (FTL transport, advanced weapons, limited matter replication), the manual arts are still honored and “talon cut” goods made by master craftsmen are a mark of status and power.

        Want more? The novel about the Great Disaster should come out next spring.

        1. Sounds interesting. Do you have any books currently available? If so, what name are you uses as the author?

          1. Hi Paul. I asked the same thing over on According to Hoyt the other day. A cat among Dragons is here:

            And there are also a couple of novellas in the same universe.
            I enjoyed the novel very much.

            1. Thanks for the link and the extra info – me being somewhat short of $$$ right now I’ve grabbed the sample.

              (On the short of $$$ side – I start a new job Monday, but it will take a while for the paychecks to start coming in.)

                1. Thanks!

                  Ended up buying after reading the opening, and read the rest. If you want details, let me know contact information to use.

  3. Sometimes you have to be a little blunt, so the _right_ assumptions are made. Does the language signal that this is a future society that regressed to pseudo medieval, or will the readers roll their eyes and say “I hate idiot authors who think medieval people spoke like modern Americans with an accent.” Blurbs are good for this. But need much reinforcing in the text. Readers don’t like it when the world they built in their heads turns out wrong.

    1. This is true. One way to signal the regression is to have durable artifacts scattered around and describe them in a way that a reader can’t miss what they are. Legends are another.

  4. I have to admit, my subconscious pattern recognition wants me to ask whether tropes and collective ignorance are natural or artificial fertilizer? I mean if you’re enriching the soil… 🙂

      1. Oh, good. I’m glad to see we have the same subconscious thoughts about enriching the soil. Use plenty of manure, turn well, and don’t forget the water. This is why we need more horses!

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