World Building – Details

You’ve done all the research. You’ve mapped out (literally perhaps) your new world, and have crafted a story worthy of a Dragon, several other awards, and lots and lots of Benjamins*, but your alpha and beta readers say, “I’m just not feeling it. I can’t see your world.”

What went wrong?

Details. You need enough detail to make the world real, especially real to the characters who live in it, but not so much that the reader drowns. This is, alas, no longer the 19th Century and we can’t go on for pages and pages about fashion, food, or other things. Unless it is critical to the plot, or you are writing a milieu novel, and even then, see “the problems of the unrestrained info-dump.”

Let’s say you have a fantasy set in a world with a tech level of late Imperial Rome. Or Autumn in the Warring States period in China. You’ve described the buildings, and the economy, and what the characters look like. What’s missing that might bring things to life, including your characters?

Sound. Smell. Taste. Touch.

Smell in particular is very evocative, can be atavistic, and a whiff is sometimes worth a thousand words if used properly. Unless you have sanitation magic, your city is going to have lots of smells, most of them less-than-pleasant to modern noses (those belonging to your readers). Your characters might be more matter of fact, identifying the sharp whiff of concentrated ammonia (stale urine) with the tanning distract, or the cloth-finishing businesses. Oh, the wind is from the south because I can smell X. Smells are also seasonal, both because of heat (low water plus high heat equals “pew!”) and because of foods, crops, and fuels varying over time. In a pre-modern setting, smoke will always be present, unless you have magic to keep it away or don’t cook in the conventional manner. Is it wood smoke, nasty half-rotten-wood smoke, soft-coal smoke, or something else? Do you smell meat or frying? What about incense, or burning grass or old burning hay? Does a south wind bring metallic scents from the smiths’ workshops? If not, why? What’s going on if a familiar smell goes away?

As Kipling (PBUH) said, “Smells are surer than sounds or sights/ To make your heart-strings crack.” (“Lichtenberg“)

Taste can be obvious (good or bad food, rotten food), the taste of blood from a mouth injury. Or more subtle, like water in a spring that’s a little odd, or meat that doesn’t taste as advertised. The textures of foods are also important. Real stone-ground flours, unless they are sifted very, very well, are a little gritty. Your noble sniffs and grumbles to herself about the quality of the bread. It tastes fine, but the texture tells her that the flour has not been sifted as well as her rank requires. Or that someone is sparing flour by adding fine-ground cornmeal.

Sounds are obvious or subtle as well. Why didn’t the dog bark in the nighttime? The birds suddenly begin to sing. Is this good, or does it mean that the forest spirits are passing through the woods and that everyone needs to cover their eyes lest they see the forbidden? In the darkness of a mine, sounds seem louder, but where are they coming from? What was that creak, that water sound?

Is fabric slick, waxy, soft, rough enough to snag easily, lumpy, tight-woven and smooth, knitted? Is there a little burr on the blade of the knife that must be ground away? Is that a clue to a murder or a reminder of a nasty fight? Has the mule always had that lump under the skin on his shoulder or is it a warning that the harness has caused problems, or worse? What is the texture of the soil that the scout is feeling and sniffing?

Obviously, you can go overboard. I have excised page after page of clothing from certain books. Or you can have excessive detail to comic effect, as a young man goes on and on and on about the virtues of his enamorata, while everyone else rolls their eyes and giggles behind their fans.

Also important, sensory detail can reveal a lot about a character. Rada Ni Drako depends a great deal on smell, and notices them and comments on them. But her color vision is poor compared to humans’, unless she is close to the object. Odile in Peaks of Grace describes every sensation… except visual images. The Staré communicate with pheromones in addition to body-language and vocal tone. The Azdhagi use body language because they don’t have facial expressions. An Azdhag who can speak without any other bit of him or her moving is a noble, or is trying to be one, and is probably very dangerous if crossed.

*A semi-archaic American English term for money.

28 thoughts on “World Building – Details

  1. Technically, a Benjamin is a bill bearing the portrait of Mr. Franklin; hence, a bill with the face value of 100 dollars. Best known today from a song proclaiming that it is all about the Benjamins.

  2. Grumble Grumble

    I was just writing a “Prologue” to a story that was several paragraphs long (before I stopped) that basically was giving the backstory of my story-universe.

    I “thought” it was necessary for the reader to know that this was America but an America where “Super-Beings” started to appear around 1900.

    But it was obvious (even to me) that I was “talking too much”. 😦

    1. One tourist, observing the shoals of garbage around some of the “scenic” sites, finally shrugged and commented, “Well, it’s their country…”

    2. Wood smoke, dung-smoke (drier, more grassy but thinner than wood smoke), car exhaust, the bitter and acrid scent of human waste in corners or on hot days, probably unwashed people scent as well if you are in a crowded place in warm weather. That would be my starting guess.

      1. If you ever buy knit slippers from Nepal with leather soles, from one of those fair trade outfits, I bet you will also learn what yak dung fires smell like.

        Fortunately, my roommate had moved to another dorm room, and the windows had a space between the pane and the wire screen. And it was winter. Couple of days outside, and the smell went away. Mostly. Unless you stuck your nose real close.

          1. Actually, it turns out that they tan yak hides with old rancid yak butter, not having other tannic acid sources, and get nice leather. What I had was yak rawhide, which still lasts a long time. (And smells like yak farmyards.)

    3. This is where bloggers come in handy. Blogs of travelers or expats — from India or expats from America/Anglophone countries — any of them could give you an on-the-street of a particular place. Travel review sites probably won’t go into that level of detail, but someone living there or whose focus is traveling might provide richer details. If the blogger is a -American (hyphen American) they may point out details that would stand out to us.

      I’ve gleaned a lot of good info from such bloggers. I wanted to know about Persian diminutives / honorifics, and an Iranian-American blogger mentioned the suffixes they add to the names of their friends and family. She also mentioned, and gave the recipe for, the rice porridge they eat for breakfast in winter. She wrote about refreshments her relatives in the old country will serve to visitors, and how to tell the front doors of Zoroastrian Persians from Muslim Persians when you’re in Iran. Rosewater appears often enough in their recipes that its scent and taste would be a sensory detail.

      Consider common ingredients that would show up in “street food” in Nepal. That’s one scent and taste right there.

    4. Smells can be evocative, sometimes in unexpected ways. Once upon a time, $HOUSEMATE took me into downtown Philadelphia in the summer. Was surprised that I found it familiar in a strange way…. hot summer afternoon, diesel exhaust from semi traffic, smells of frying/deep frying… Downtown Philly? Yeah, but also… County Fair. (Diesel exhaust from the generators powering everything there.)

    5. Burning yak dung? If you feed a yak 30 pounds or oregano, does its digestive end product smell better?

  3. It’s easy to start with too broad a view. All about the beautiful city, reflecting the grandeur of the Empire that stretches for a thousand days’ journey in every direction and has endured for twenty centuries . . . and forget to tell the reader about the POV character’s immediate local.

    Start with the rich rugs on the stone floor of his father’s house. Getting a bit threadbare, as the family’s fortunes have shrunk after losing the patronage of the . . .

    Make it personal, first, then get into the bigger stuff.

  4. Remember what your point of view character would notice.

    A hardened warrior will notice what points would make good ambushes, where a superior force would flatten his party, etc.

    Meanwhile the wizard is noticing that there are patches of carnival flowers, which indicates that they are probably close to the ruins, and there had been wizards there to increase the level of ambient magic, but not too recently, as the flowers still look like wildflowers.

    1. A friend was thinking about a Conneticut Yankee/Kalvan type story with a female protagonist who brought certain, ah, chemical knowledge to her new world because she’d worked in demolitions.

      We discussed a scene where after some time helping the Good Guys, her Handsome Prince is bringing her home to meet the fimily. They come over the rise, and she stares in wonder at the beautiful castle, right out of a fairy tale–

      –and to her horror, she realizes that from pure habit, she’s working out where she’d plant the charges…

      1. Yup.

        I sometimes warn people that becoming a reader will change how you read for pleasure for all time.

    1. And that might be a cue to readers that something’s odd – the POV character describes textures, shapes, light, but not color…

  5. I’m working on a seriously AU situation in an obscure corner of the world.

    Some of the AU involves renaming parts of that corner. I’ve been short inspiration for some place names that I will eventually need. I’m not sure what triggered things, but I remembered that I’d intended at one point to evoke New England, and remembered some figures from when I was reading about the history of the Philippines. Boom, some flavor details.

  6. They came to a deeper pool in the stream and the werewolf abruptly pitched him in. “Ha! Now that is funny!” she said, showing her teeth in a terrifying expression, equal parts laughter and rage. “Wet mouse! Haha!”

    “At least I don’t smell like a wet dog,” he muttered under his breath, forgetting her supernaturally sharp hearing.

    She grasped the front of his ragged shirt and held him up in front of her face. All he could see was her eyes, glowing in the dark. “Did you say I smell?” she rumbled.

    “No?” he squeaked.

    “Do not lie to me, mouse,” she growled, shaking her calloused finger at him. Even though it was right in his face, he could barely see it in the moonlight.

    “Yes?” he tried, now very frightened because he didn’t know what she was going to do.

    “I thought so,” she said. She sniffed at herself and winced. “Fair enough.” She placed him on the bank and began scrubbing herself in the pool.

  7. Very useful thread. Thanks everyone. Different people focus on differrnt things. People in books might do as well. have to look and use.

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