World Building – Research Phase

So you decide you want to create a new world for your characters to play in, or you get the wild idea—after one too many children’s dinosaur books read at bedtime—to write a story where the dinosaurs didn’t get offed by [insert disaster here]. Or a world where reptiles rule. Or whatever.

You can just start writing whatever pops into mind and hope for the best. Or you can do some research. Me being me, I research. But where do you start?

I was taught to use a funnel approach. Find the most general, broad things on the topic that are readily available, or that can be easily obtained (bought, checked out from library). For Merchant and Magic, since I already had an OK knowledge of where I wanted to set the story, I began looking for general books about the North Sea and trade in that area. If I needed to start even more basic, I’d have hunted for general histories of Medieval Europe, in order to get a sense of chronology and where things were happening. That also gave me a better idea of when, or at least what sort of technology level and political options might work.

While in the general books and magazines (and web-sites), I look at their bibliographies and footnotes. You can probably rule out primary source documents, as I did, since going to, oh, the Bodleian Library in England to read about crown policies on trade wasn’t really something I could do. But I did find some research paper collections that I ended up checking out via inter-library loan. They told me about the religious confraternities Hansa traders belonged to, and the rules of the trading-posts for their members (no strange women, all bills must be paid on time, so on), and that a number of Hansa cities had paved streets because it was prestigious. These are details that really helped firm-up what I wanted the world to “look like.”

Economic histories told me about trade, sometimes in far more detail than I wanted—So. Much. Codfish.—and much more than readers wanted. But things like “just price” and what fell under it were very, very important until the modern era, and were debated with great heat and vigor. The hazards of the road and sea, and what sort of loads could be carried, what the most valuable goods were, who in general bought what… Sifting out those bits from the dull dross took time but again, were vital to my world. The main character is a businessman who swims in that kind of thing. He’s not going to notice the water, but the writer had better pay attention, or readers will notice holes.

Another source that is becoming more available are archaeological reports. Where written sources do not exist, artifacts and other physical evidence can be useful. That’s how I learned about the paved streets in Hansa cities, and about the organization of a kontor and the wares-houses. Other things as well, such as how often various bits of cities and towns burned down but didn’t make the available written records. (Pretty dang often, apparently, depending on where and when.)

As I read, I took notes, including on how I might use this bit and that. These are not as detailed and precise as my academic research notes, but they are categorized and tabbed so that I could/can go through them quickly and make certain I recall things correctly, and get them right the second or third time I use that bit. (I also knew I was going to have a sort of bibliography, so that was another reason for a list).

But you are doing sci-fi, not history-based fantasy! Then I highly, highly recommend some of the Writers’ Digest how-to world-building books. If you need simple planetary mechanics, a thumbnail guide to where the masters went awry on alien biology, and so on, and examples to track down and read, those are worth their price. Plus many libraries have copies. Also read about geology, about the odder corners of biology (see Dave Freer’s piece on sea creatures and reproduction in this blog for some really “oh good grief, that’s totally bizarre!” ideas), and different science things that apply to your world as you come across them. If you are going to write about a super volcano, say, keep chronology in mind or you may have some people walling the book because it goes from “Quiet, unassuming, unsuspected” to “Dude, where’s my continent?” in two weeks or so without giving a reason. I’d skip the volcano and do the New Madrid fault or the one under NYC, personally, but that’s just me. The point is still start broad and then narrow your focus. Planetary systems, then what your world’s atmosphere might be like, then what kinds of life would work in that system, and so on.

That may be too broad, but the point is, start with a large net, then narrow down. If you don’t have a larger context, a monograph on medieval metallurgy of non-ferrous ores is going to be useless. If you do have context, that paper on experimental super-small nuclear power plant designs may be just what you needed.

And you can talk to people. I tend not to, because I’m an introvert and I really like book research better than trying to arrange conversations with other historians and experts. That said, people have had luck contacting academic authors and getting info. MomRed saw a paper that looked intriguing that was in a bibliography. She found the author and e-mailed him, explained that she was interested in the history of the area and had read this, that, and this other thing, had seen the reference, and wondered how she could obtain a copy? He replied and directed her to a conference paper collection, recommending that she ILL it if possible due to her limited interests and the cost. MomRed thanked him for his assistance and did as recommended. The worst that can happen is the person can say no.**

So, after a year of intermittent reading and mulling over, assisted by some ground truthing and museum visits*, I had details, I had a good idea of how medieval trade worked, and what went where, or didn’t.

Now, how to get them into the story without turning this into the world’s longest, “As you know, Bob…”


*I was amazing fortunate that in Germany and Belgium, there are museums dedicated to trade and business history of the Hansa, and that I was in a position to visit them, and can read the languages. Photo books, museum catalogues, and similar things can fill in at times, so you get an idea of what things and places looked like.

**Be warned, some university e-mail systems auto-spam anything from AOL, Hotmail, and a few other services.

24 thoughts on “World Building – Research Phase

  1. One of the single most useful references I found, for building a mental picture of Texas in the mid-1850s was a travelogue by Frederick Law Ohlmstead (who later designed New York’s Central Park.) He and his brother did a long, wandering horseback trip through Texas and made note of everything; how the houses looked, the people passing in the streets of San Antonio, what was served at boarding-house meals, and how much stuff cost in the markets, and what farmers were growing. Detail upon detail … it was most useful to me, but probably pretty boring for someone hoping for tales of adventure and derring-do on the Texas frontier…

  2. The funnel method is good when you want to do a solid research job. Though, if what you want is not in textbooks, but may be in some obscure academic publication, and you have access to those, it may be wise to hit up a specialist or near specialist for advice on search terms.

    Sometimes the questions of a creative writing project are not ones that one needs to find single correct answers for. Sometimes it suffices to have the right feel and a certain logic to it. Even if the logic is quite mad. Researching single correct answers means you don’t need to invent. Some details can only be invented. Inventing means you need to be reading, watching, listening or whatever to material that will provide inspiration. Which can be very specific to the writer.

    1. Absolutely. We all approach writing, research, and how we use what we find in very different ways. I lean on research because that’s how I was trained. Is it a crutch for me? Possibly, but my OCD academic brain worries about things that most writers probably glance at and think, “Eh, it’ll buff out, and I can go back and explain it in the next book if someone fusses.”

    2. This pretty much how I approach things. If I dove head first into hardcore research I’d never get any writing done. There would always be a new rabbit hole to dive down.

  3. In world-building research can prevent you from the “that sounds right to me so it’s true” mistakes.

    In one of my “world-building” attempts, I was operating under the assumption that the seven-day week arose from five planets, the sun & the moon.

    Stephanie Osborne informed me that seven-days is one fourth of a lunar month. [Embarrassed Grin]

  4. Research is never wasted, either. The information you gathered for one project might inspire another.

  5. Talking to random people about their jobs is endlessly useful. Some guy doing something will seldom turn down a chance to tell you ALL about what he’s doing and how he’s doing it.

    As well, I’ve found little books like “A Brief History of the Screw” or the early history of Computers, or the stirrup, things that don’t get any press but you can’t do a damn thing without them. The history of the screw turns out to be central to all of modern technology. (Pun intended, haw!) Precision machining depends entirely on the regularity, variance and cost of the screws that control the cutters on your lathe or other machine.

    Welding glasses are another thing that gets no attention but they are absolutely indispensable for modern construction. Sooner or later you will have to cut a big fat piece of steel.

      1. I actually meant to say welding -gasses- because the torch was the big thing in construction, historically. Joints were made by riveted plates, because welded joints were weak. Gas welding is a very demanding process, everything has to be just so, otherwise the result is very poor quality.

        Welding -glasses- are hugely important in modern electrical welding of course, because the arc is so hot it creates ultraviolet light. So it will blind the operator. But he still has to SEE what he’s doing, because its a very visual skill. Basically the same as piping cake icing, except its molten metal.

        I have a 1947 Ford grain truck, all the frame joints are riveted. These days vehicles and buildings are largely welded, because the advances in welding technology since WWII have been nothing short of amazing. Add robots, and now in 2018 all kinds of crazy stuff can be welded together. That didn’t use to be possible. You watch newsreel footage of those guys building the Empire State Building, there’s a guy with a gas forge set up in the middle of a beam heating rivets, throwing them across empty space to another guy to catch in a bucket, he jams it in a hole and beats it in there with a riveting hammer, then a third guy peens it into final shape with an air hammer. Rinse, repeat, all day long. That’s how you make a building in the old days.

        This is the kind of background that for a Science Fiction story can be so important. Example, you want to have, as I did, some Heinlein Mobile Infantry jump armor. Its helpful to the reader if you have half a clue what’s involved in a thing like that. Heinlein made up a whole planetary assault tactic for that suit, based on what he thought would be the suit’s abilities and limitations. One of the things he considered was acceleration. He launched his suits out of a cannon in the bowels of the ship, one of the greatest scenes in the history of Science Fiction.

        In my space ship I spent a bit of time talking about magnets. Because EVERYTHING about a fusion engine or a plasma gun or a rail gun depends on magnets. So I had to sit here and think about everything I knew about magnets, and think up some semi-plausible handwavium stuff to make them work. But if I don’t know you need a magnetic field to make a channel for the plasma to follow, its going to be hard for me to write a reasonable description.

        The thing doesn’t have to -work- of course, it just has to seem like it could work if you had all the fancy stuff they have in the story.

        Magic is the same way. The best stories with magic, the guy has to WORK for it, and it has to seem like more than merely reciting the proper words at the correct phase of the moon. Otherwise everybody would be doing it to conjure up their supper.

        1. That explains some of what I’ve heard about skill in welding in stories of the 1940s-1960s or so.

  6. A wise thing to do is lay down a base of reading of history — particularly primary source — not only as a research basis, but to alert you that you may have to look something up because you don’t realize that it’s not the same everywhere, and you don’t know you don’t know that.

    On the other hand, you can never please everyone with your research, because some people will get annoyed if you get it right.

  7. Apparently, this author was annoyed enough at “but silver bullets don’t work” reader comments that she set out to prove them wrong: Making Silver Bullets.

    I question this factibble: “Prior to the industrial revolution, there wasn’t enough sulfur in the air to tarnish silver.” No idea how to prove it right or wrong, though.

    1. I have two alternative proposals for an investigative path.

      One is digging around in the historical record for documentation on labor spent polishing silver.

      For the second, you’d first need data on tarnishing rate of silver under various atmospheres. This has probably already been done. (Wiki says that tarnishing rate of silver is much lower for oxygen than for hydrogen sulfide.) Next, ice core data on hydrogen sulfide levels at various times. Next data on escape of the stuff from bubbles in ice over time to calibrate the second.

      1. I would expect if one is cooking eggs in a skillet, and you have silver near enough, you’re going to get tarnish.

        1. Or other things that give off sulfur. Cloth-of-silver that was buried with the rich and/or famous in the middle ages has all tarnished, even in sealed caskets.

    2. I’ve been reading about gas permeation, and now you’ve got me wondering how well ice stores centuries old air samples in bubbles.

      Forex, sampling hydrogen sulfide levels in Icelandic glaciers.

    3. That is crap. Old authors spend a lot of time commenting on silver tarnish, both in natural philosophy texts and in Bible verse commentaries. Silver tarnish was one reason why it was less valuable than gold, and why gold was seen as a symbol of deathlessness, heaven, incorruptibility, etc. It is in Shakespeare! What the heck!!!!

        1. Apparently, pure silver is more tarnish-resistant than sterling silver (which was invented in medieval times to make silver more useful and less bendable, as well as cheaper).

          But pure silver will still tarnish; and there has always been enough sulfur around to do it — in the air or on human skin.

      1. Banshee, it is probably a matter of having come across that claim being made by the climate modelers, and not checking the alternative sources.

  8. So if you are lucky, you need information on the British Army in India in 1903-1905, which I found. If you are less lucky, you need information on the Chinese Army in Sinkiang in 1900-1905, which I have not been able to find.

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