Worldbuilding and genre

Karen’s post yesterday inspired me to do some serious thinking about how I’m handling worldbuilding in the WIP. (Note: this is not the same as seriously inspired thinking. Alas.)

It’s another Regency fantasy set in the imaginary world of Din Eidyn, which I think of as what Edinburgh would have been like at the time had it been the capital of an independent country and a social center in its own right. Still – Regency, right? And that means a world that’s already so familiar to readers that it’s really not worth putting a lot of time into explaining the rules for who is allowed to waltz in public, or the importance of paying gambling debts as opposed to tradesmen’s bills, or… well, innumerable social conventions of the period. I’m being made aware of this because my husband is very kindly reading the chapters as I go, and he is *ahem* very much not a member of my target audience. So I’m being forced to realize that people who aren’t Regency fans need a little more social background that I’m providing, even while people who are Regency fans will pick up the allusions and slang terms and may even be annoyed that I think they need more explanation.

I hadn’t anticipated this happening, but it feels as if I’m having to work harder/dance faster in the parts of the story that hinge on Regency conventions than in the fantasy parts which are almost entirely invented. When it’s more work to describe a dance at the Assembly Rooms than it is to show your main character in a dialogue with the dead who use music and images to foretell the future… well, I don’t know what that means. Perhaps that I should try a less well-known background in the next book?

13 thoughts on “Worldbuilding and genre

  1. I’m laughing (sympathetically) here since I am myself in the middle of a series-in-progress fantasy set in a faux-Regency faux-London (complete otherworld, but that’s the appropriate stage-of-history/society/tech/trade/empire background). So, while I’m not relying on actual slang or genuine Regency social courtship & dance customs, I’m definitely adhering to much of that as unclarified background-setting-in-passing.

    So while you may have the issue of explaining Almacks (and Georgette Heyer makes a great guide), I have to (for example) come up with alternative terms for the various carriages while eliminating disruptive explicit proper-name derivations (Brougham, Hansom) and explicit (real) foreign languages/places (Chaise, Barouche, Landau, Landaulet, Coupe) or Classical references (Curricle, Phaeton) … which doesn’t leave a lot of terms for distinguishing social classes/people by the vehicles they use. [Probably my next scheduled post here will go into this sort of issue in detail].

    So I get to (have to) use more general terms referring to Regency accoutrements/constraints, with a consequent loss of useful indirect detail, or else I have to explain it all, which is what you’re facing. 🙂

    Considering how little most modern audiences understand anything at all about the customs of another time and place, it’s a perilous path to pick between everything-goes modern standards of behavior and avoiding carpet-bombing your characters’ reputations in more constrained societal expectations. If your modern readers can’t picture a character’s actions as scandalous, it’s hard for them to make sense of their reactions in the plot. On the other hand, you can’t repair all their deficits of historical times.

    I come down on the side of telling the story the way I want to tell it, in a world I want to make/use/modify, and making reasonable assumptions about my well-read audience’s ability to keep up. We can’t make up for someone else’s unpredictable deficiencies, but if we help them out with little clues and hints and the right language (avoiding anachronisms/external references), maybe they’ll pick it up as they go along. After all, it’s how we all learned as we grew up.

    1. Another would-be faux-regency writer checking in. I hear you on the carriage problem, and would be interested to see your thoughts on that and similar issues.

        1. As a preview… In book 3 of the series, I’m going to recreate the Brougham under a different name (not very differently from its actual invention & naming). My main POV character is an heir to a wizard guild (Torch & Scroll, nicknamed (as all the guilds are) as “Ashes & Dust”). His new convenient carriage design will become popular and they will end up getting known, as those wizards are, as “Dusties”.

          Of course, you can’t do something like that for every nomenclaturally-offending object in the culture.

  2. Regency is a time period and setting with such devoted readers that it strikes me as harder than other settings. WWII would be another, because you KNOW there’s going to be someone who will jump on errors or “wait, if you are going to have the Poles do Y thing, you need a better reason than handwavium, because handwavium won’t explain [logical result that is important to history here].”

    There’s I reason I stick with the Holy Roman Empire and its close neighbors to the east. (I’m lazy.)

    1. What’s even worse than a setting already well known to fanatics of the genre/period, I think, is one where people think they know a lot about it but nearly everything they know is wrong. Like the Scottish Highlands – so many people have uncritically bought the Walter Scott/Rob Roy romantic drek that they’d probably be furious if you told them what it was really like.

      1. Good point. I’m sticking with a very fantasy Scotland in the Dark Ages, because, well, as far as written sources, they’re pretty dark. You have some things filtered through the church, some inscriptions maybe (maybe. Some have multiple possible interpretations of the ogham), and most people don’t know enough about the Pictish kingdoms and Dal Riata to fuss. Much.

    2. Yep, WW2 is a challenging period to write in. If the Texas Navy is over here doing this, then that means the Royal Navy can be over there doing (Warning! Snerk collar activated.) while what’s left of the French Navy is (gasp, choke…)

  3. What’s really fun is trying to slither in the knowledge in a manner that is amusing to the readers who already know it.

  4. Harry Turtledove once commented that after writing in a 9th century Byzantine world where there were about two contemporary documents, it was a nasty shock when he first wrote in an American Civil War setting and discovered that Every. Single. Moment. Was. Documented.

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