Twelve oxen under the sea… There is some reason for twelve oxen being under the sea, but unless one knows the whole story, it is at best mysterious and more like meaningless.
But maybe it sounds good…
Building backgrounds into a story is one of the areas that separates great writers from the hoi polloi (which is a posh way of saying blokes wot are like the monkey, and scratch where they didn’t ought to, and in public). It is particularly difficult in any story NOT set in something close to that chaotic mess we call the ‘the real world’ and mostly fail to deal with. We at least have a lot of referents for that. Great fantasy, Alien cultures, not much. (Alternate history is much easier in this sense). Not only is building a new world/universe really hard work – for both the author and the reader, it’s also very difficult to do well (which is why 90% of fantasy is just Hollywood Medieval with a few extra touches). It’s rather worse than dropping your reader straight into life in rural India, because that at least has a few normal modern US referents. A real fantasy world – Tolkien’s LotR for example, is very complex and rather like an oil-painting takes a huge number of layers to emerge as a complete and complex thing. Only it’s a lot harder than mere oil painting, in that the amount of ‘meaningless until you see more of the picture’ that a writer can get away with is very limited. You see, the canvas is the reader’s imagination, built on layer by layer. Fill it useful-later blotches, and… it’s going to bore the reader and have him not wait for those later layers of color.
This is where writing becomes far more art than science, balancing the story against the backfill, engaging the reader while you build up those layers. Doing it is hard, doing it really well… so the picture, complex, detailed and wholly different, develops without the reader being aware of it being done, masterly, beyond most of us.
There are of course variants of cheating to help. You can write the answers inside your shirt cuffs, but this may not be a great help to you or anyone in this type of exam. The key thing to remember (and do write it on the cuff it helps) is that 1) Baring an omniscient point of view narrator (as in the start bits of most Pratchett Discworld stories) your reader cannot know more than your characters. And the only senses and viewpoint you have to carry that to your reader… is that of your character. If your heroine thinks sleeping in the moist tentacular embrace of a sentient parasitic polyp normal… she’s not going to describe her bed as if she’s never seen it before. Moreover she won’t find it, or the little star-shaped bruises from the suckers and the gelatinous slime in her hair unpleasant, or un-usual.
2) If you have a reason to use referents that readers recognize WITHOUT idiocy of logical inconsistency, it makes life a shed-load easier. Blacksmithing is blacksmithing – even if the locals traverse distances by being projectile-vomited by Zwongs. They just won’t make horse shoes. (for heaven’s sake if you’re going to have horses AND Zwongs please give me a ‘why’. Or at least for me your books will receive the projectile part. I know that totally batty woman at Worldcon told Toni that you didn’t have to know or understand any science to write sf, and I am sure she’d include fantasy, and I am sure her audience don’t need it to make sense, but boring people like me do. If you write fiction you make stuff up. Plausible lies. It’s not that hard, and I gather women are better than men. Show me.
3) Do not make the obvious mistake of the tour of the Starship enterprise or as you know Bob. It really is better to focus on action and dribble bits in, than to do this…
OK. Your suggestions? And books that gave you a really different universe without you realizing the author was building it in your head?
Oh a quick question –ended up talking to a graphic artist/cover designer a few days ago – and looking for prices on her webpage. (for the record, she was pleasant, helpful and… a great poker player – um I assume she, could be wrong, but it doesn’t matter. The cover design I thought excellent, the artwork a bit photo-realistic for where I think the market is going, but certainly the artist has the skills to adapt to that IMO. Certainly a contender, if I were buying right now) I asked where they were, eventually. She said it depended on how complex the work was, and that she quoted accordingly. She said she’d had people take advantage of fixed prices, and since she’d taken them down, had more business. Blink. Now, I don’t know if this is a cultural anomaly (quite plausible) or not, but honestly I dread bargaining, and would hate to go into a shop and ask a price to find it too dear for me. If there are no prices, I just don’t buy. I’d like a ball-park at least. How do you feel about the issue?