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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.

34 Comments
  1. I do my worldbuilding bassackwards of everyone else: I observe my nonhumans doing something I don’t understand, then have to work out the how and why thereof, which then becomes part of their universe.

    Besides, when I’ve tried to build their world in advance, they thumb their noses at me and do as they please anyway, so I might as well just listen to ’em in the first place.

    July 22, 2018
    • Mary #

      Developing your world to meet your story does have its wonderful sides.

      Figured out the technology level of a world once by having a celebration in honor of the hero.

      July 22, 2018
  2. Dorothy Grant #

    Heh. My first book had a ton of worldbuilding revolving around “How big does a crater have to be, in order to make and hold its own weather?” This had some truly fascinating rabbit trails involving the geology and available resources at the bottom of such a large hole, and how big the planet had to be to stay intact, and…

    My second started with a mental image of “If the alien ruin looked like that, why and how was it made?” And then there as hitting up people who’ve been interesting places and done interesting things to learn how that part of the world works, and checking the cultures were relayed correctly. Most of which didn’t make it into the book.

    As for the third, I’m not sure where it’s going yet, but there’s research into long-distance hiking and night hiking going on.

    July 22, 2018
  3. Zsuzsa #

    Re: Michener’s Colorado novel: it was bad enough at the beginning that it managed to get an 8-year-old boy to say, “I’m sick of hearing about these stupid dinosaurs!”

    July 22, 2018
    • There is such a thing as excessive detail and depth. Oh is there ever!

      July 22, 2018
      • Hunting Guy #

        Have you looked at De Re Metallica for your pre-industrial mining info?

        Mrs. Hoover (yep, her husband was the president) did a good job on it. Unfortunately her husband gets the credit for it.

        July 24, 2018
        • Yes. The full illustrated edition arrived in hard copy last week.

          July 25, 2018
  4. I like to make a distinction between “info” and “info dump.” An info dump (per me) is when the author stops the action of the story to tell the readers something they neither need nor want to hear right now. But if you move an info dump later in the story, readers might be grateful for an explanation to something that had confused them–turning an info dump into just plain info. This only works if you’ve already made them care about the characters and the plot, of course.

    What I like about this definition is that it makes an info dump something that is always wrong. Sadly, even by this definition, I still see them in published short fiction. Not in every story or even every issue, but more often than I think I ought to.

    July 22, 2018
    • On the other hand, there are people who read the Honor Harrington series for the info dumps, and skip the parts in between.

      July 22, 2018
      • Draven #

        yeah, Weber does hefty infodumps, and he’s having to do it again to fill out the Sollies and Mesans.

        July 22, 2018
      • Which serves as a reminder that there is no such thing as the Universal Reader. Or, to be a little more waggish, “a perfectly spherical reader of uniform density.”

        July 22, 2018
        • 🤠

          July 22, 2018
        • Luke #

          Which is to say, some of us love Michener.
          And Melville geeking out about ships.

          July 23, 2018
        • Chris Chittleborough #

          … whose weight may be neglected?

          July 26, 2018
  5. Christopher M. Chupik #

    Personally, I like short little encyclopedia-style entries at the beginning of a chapter to provide information and foreshadowing in a painless fashion.

    July 22, 2018
    • Yeah, I like those too. It sets up in my head ‘the world, in shorthand’ and then I can go on to enjoy the book.

      Little flavor quotes and notes at the start of a chapter also make the world more real, at least to me.

      July 22, 2018
      • Yet other people hate, hate, hate them.

        I’ve had critiquers tell me to get rid of them because “they’re all in the same voice,” which was weird because, at least to me, each of them has a different voice. Apparently that reader has a different perception of “voice” in the written word than I do.

        Which is why it’s so important to get multiple readers if at all possible — because each of us has our blind spots, our peculiarities of taste, etc. But acquiring each additional reader seems to be just as much effort as the sum of the effort to acquire all the previous ones, so it’s so easy to rely on one or two eager readers.

        July 22, 2018
        • “Hmmph.” — Baron Bodissey

          July 23, 2018
      • SheSellsSeashells #

        Holly Lisle did an utterly genius few-paragraph description of her heroine looking for a snack that managed to sketch out their society, social statuses in general, HER status, local geography and a few other things. I wish I could get that level of detail in that few words.

        July 22, 2018
      • Christopher M. Chupik #

        And you can use them for comic effect:

        Omicron Septimus IV – Terra-class planet. Primary G4. Climate: moderate, suitable for human life. Considered the prime vacation spot of the Outer Andromeda Hegemony.

        Markus he stepped out of the shuttle, into the sweltering heat of Omicron Septimus IV. Stingworms attacked his boots and he heard the death-screams of swamp grazers being swallowed by mudmaws.

        “Vacation spot my ass,” Markus muttered as he kicked away the stingworms.

        July 22, 2018
        • Christopher M. Chupik #

          Strike that “he”. Sigh.

          An edit function! My kingdom for an edit function!

          July 22, 2018
    • I like them when they’re funny. As a general tool for information transfer, they can turn out pretty stupid sometimes.

      July 22, 2018
  6. 23 skidoo

    July 22, 2018
  7. OldNFO #

    Good points, and there IS always that fine line between ‘enough’ detail and way too much. As Leigh said, “Readers!” They WILL tell you when it’s too much.

    July 22, 2018
  8. BobtheRegisterredFool #

    I’ve a fanfic project I’ve been trying to avoid wasting time on. Just recently I accidentally did an economic analysis on one of the major sources, concluding ‘how does the economy even work?’ This project is harder than canon to design a functioning economy for, it is outside of the scope, and the viewpoint character does not know or care about that stuff. Yet I have a part of my brain trying to figure out an economic underpinning. And the overlap between that part, and the part trying to convince me to sit down and write the outline, is trying to figure out how to describe or heinlein whatever I figure out for an economy.

    July 22, 2018
  9. “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.”

    How does some low level peasant girl in 1100AD know the mine water is killing the watercress? Surely she would assume it was witches, and go hunting for the person who had a grudge against her. Common people didn’t know about “miasmas” back in the day either, that was doctor-level stuff.

    -WE- know its the mine water. If some random Medieval cress-gathering teenager knows that, there you have a story in itself.

    July 22, 2018
    • Not quite. They know about miasmas, because they’ve heard it from their dad who heard it from their priest who heard it from a doctor, but they have no idea what they supposedly are or do.

      July 23, 2018
    • Terry Sanders #

      As C. S. Lewis once pointed out, if a child says “Don’t drink that, Mommy says it’s poison,” you don’t laugh it off because the kid’s not a biochemist. You don’t have to know the mechanism to recognize the threat.

      July 23, 2018
    • Miasmas appeared not long after the miners and others had a big celebration for getting the pump repaired. The mine opening is only a mile and a bit from town. So obviously the miners have found a way to move miasma-laden water out of the mine. As the stream gets cloudy and sour, well… logic. Even without finding a priest of Donwah for confirmation.

      July 23, 2018
    • Hunting Guy #

      Geologist/Mining Engineer here.

      Depending on the ore, run off water will be silt laden, discolored, taste and or smell bad.

      Mine run-off has always been a problem and it would be normal for anyone in that environment to be able to see the effects.

      I would fully expect someone that made their living by harvesting to see how the plants were harmed by mine waste water discharge.

      July 23, 2018
      • Fellow geologist greeting!

        Also, if the mine drainage is highly acidic and there’s any limestone at all about, the two will react rather visibly to one another. Which is likely to be unsettling to the locals, (and when the quality of the water goes down. “This stuff made rocks fizz… what’s it doing to the water?)

        July 24, 2018
  10. mrsizer #

    I loved the world-building in that book. It was as if I were exploring it myself. But, can more happen in the next one? Which I will definitely buy, if that helps 😉

    Is it legal to start a sentence with “which”?

    July 23, 2018

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