World Building – Foundation and walls
So, you have amazing nifty sources and details for your world. Now all you need is a story to stuff them into! That is, without having too much of a good thing. James A. Michener was (in)famous for starting a novel about, oh the Front Range of Colorado with the Laramide orogeny and then working forward 70-80 million years before introducing his first human characters. OK, maybe not that bad—he starts in the Pleistocene*… That’s taking world building too far, unless there is an in-story reason for it. You also don’t want a series of info-dumps loosely connected by a character. (Parts of Dune might be an exception, but most of us are not Frank Herbert, and he was writing a milieu novel that happened to have an adventure story tucked into it.)
So what do you do?
I’m going to assume that you have a plot in mind, more or less, and some character ideas. You want to set the scene, and use the information you’ve amassed to build a living, breathing world around your story, one that unfolds with the plot.
Note: While I’m talking about physical and economic details, you might want to think about politics, music, laws, military technology and organization, religion… whatever fits the genre and world you are building.
What is your world like? In the book (or novella?) I’m currently researching, it is one with early medieval technological levels and some magic. A major climate shift is ending and things are getting warmer. People have just moved to a location that has promise for metals and wood, and is away from…something. The plot will be how a free city becomes a free city, and will involve internal and external conflicts. The people make their living from some farming and trapping, and mostly from mining.
I need to be able to describe mining, moving the ore, and smelting such as it was around 1100 in Central Europe. My readers do NOT want a lovingly detailed description of building the furnaces, building the sluices to bring water to the furnaces, about making bellows, loading the furnaces, making charcoal to heat the… Yeah. All that has to be worked into the story in a way that won’t sound like the dissertation on medieval metallurgy that I’m currently reading. If it doesn’t fit, I shouldn’t try to shoehorn it in, no matter how cool it may be to me.
I’ve done the research, and am doing more research. Going into a medieval mine helped (it is now an international historical site with tours). I’m not going to copy the mine completely, but I have an idea of what problems are involved and where conflicts would arise.
Likewise with the city at the foot of the mountains. What do you do when run-off from the mine starts killing the fish and water-plants in a stream? Is it worth finding another water source, or should the mine close and a new ore-body be located and worked? Kayla gathers watercress and other herbs from the stream in order to make extra money to help feed her family while her father recovers from a farming accident. She says the mine needs to stop letting sour water flow into the creek because it is killing the cress and the livestock have to go farther for water. Jurgin, in charge of paying the men who are building the city’s walls, says that the mine is more important than one stream. After all, without walls, the city can’t fend off outsiders who might try to take it over. And the sour water has counteracted the miasmas from the moat, making the air healthier.
I might use an earlier conversation about walls and the law, the miners celebrating getting a pump working again so they can lower the water and reach a richer ore-seam, and then present Kayla at a town meeting adding her complaint to those of others – perhaps brewers who need clean water, and dairy women who have to take their cows farther to fresh water. None of the people are going to be talking about the process of acidification and water chemistry. They live in a qualitative world. But the questions of fair use and rights to what service from a limited resource are vital to them. It also gives readers signs of the tensions within the city, and how the economy works (or doesn’t).
Those questions and situation offer a way to build a detailed world for your reader without an info dump or wandering off into a descriptive side-quest.
Here’s using some details in an actual story. The farmer challenged a women because he said she was charging too much for bread. Meester Loram is in charge of the market.
Meester Loraam leaned forward and sniffed. He stood. “Apples and spices, not living bread, leb-bread. What the price?”
The baker’s maid said, “Half-vlaat for two weight, Meester Loraam.”
The market master nodded. “Top price for fine baking is one vlaat per weigh, so your price is within bounds.”
The farmer’s face turned red. “Nay! Bread is bread, all know that, ask Gember’s priest. Just price is ten weight per vlaat that man might live.” He pointed to the basket, his hand shaking. “Them’s loaves, that makes them bread, bread’s ten per vlaat.”
Meester Loraam turned to look at the man. “Where come ye from?”
“I come from Dinklefeld, that way,” he pointed to the south and east. “I’ve been here three day, know the bread laws I do.”
“Then you are excused your confusion this time, stranger. The lords of Guill set a difference between fine breads and leb-breads. Leb-breads are ten per vlaat, as you say. But fine breads are like fine goods, and trade for the cost plus a decent living for the baker. You may go, miss.” She curtsied again and hurried to make her delivery. “If you seek leb-bread, the sign of the Folded Roll has what you seek.”
“But bread’s bread?” the stranger sounded more confused than angry. Tycho wondered if Meester Loraam’s size had something to do with it.
“Not by law here. Man can live without apple-stuffed spice bread, or ground nut loaf with winter spices.”
One of the witnesses called, “Man can, but I can’t!” He patted his ample stomach, bringing laughter all around. Even the fat stranger smiled a little.
“I’m going that way, visitor, if you want to see where the leb-bread is sold,” the fabric seller offered.
“The matter is decided.” With that, everyone returned to their business. Tycho decided that Meester Loraam would be easy to work with and dangerous to cross, a good combination in a market master.
End of excerpt.
You get a picture of how trade works in the city, that some things have maximum prices for moral reasons, that people take questions about just price very seriously, and that the market value of things is regulated. And that the currency is the vlaat. But you get all that without an info dump, and (I hope) without overloading you and drowning the story.
The point is, work the information into the story, like folding ingredients into a batter. Unless you are writing for an audience that knows and appreciates info-dumps as info-dumps, use the bits and pieces you’ve gathered to build a world that you reveal through events in the story.
There is a time and place for an info-dump, and ways to do it without lecturing your reader. You can lecture your character instead, but sparingly if possible. In the Work-In-Progress, Ewoud is learning about furs. It makes sense for him and the other newcomers to be instructed as a group about furs, especially how to sort and grade the kinds of furs that the masters are buying. It also allowed me to work in that there’s at least one “hidden” mage at the trading office, and that the masters have little patience for fools who won’t listen. Thus a scene where the man in charge of furs has the new guys inspect, sort, and grade furs. They also learn about a kind of pelt that they are never, ever to purchase on their own. If one comes in to the trade office, they must go get a master. No Exceptions. [Hint One] Later they discuss rumors that someone tried to fake one of those special furs, [Hint Two] and a journeyman reminds them that if one comes in, they must go get a master. [Yes, heavy foreshadowing. Cue minor-key music of “impending disaster”]
Then a special fur comes in, and one of the journeymen tries to haggle for it without a master present…
*Pleistocene – the ice ages. The last major geologic time division before “recent”.
I’m on the road most of today, so I apologize in advance if I’m slow answering comments and questions.