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Worldbuilding you can live in…

Posted in Dustings of Blue, Fantasy, Research, Setting, and The Affinities of Magic

One of the foundational elements of a Science-Fiction or a Fantasy story is its setting. All stories have settings, but a contemporary novel can get away with skimming over things its readers already understand from their daily lives in a way than a lot of SFF can't.

If you don't describe the space ship and its limitations, you can't picture the characters in that environment. If you don't ground the Hero-with-a-Mission™ in a particular place and time and culture, you can't move him around in a realistic way that lets your readers identify with him.

The picture above is the background full cover for Structures of Earth, the first book in my new series The Affinities of Magic. [Reminder — I am finishing the first three books before releasing the first one, and I'm in the middle of book 3, Dustings of Blue, now…]

Most Fantasy authors feature their characters on their covers, and I am no exception. But just this once, for the first book of what I expect to be a long series, I wanted to feature the setting: a wizard guild hall that has fallen on very hard times, in a backwater of the capitol city of an empire that is just beginning to feel the impact of its Industrial Revolution. The hero will become one of the movers & shakers of an Industrial Revolution of Magic.

So far, so good. I certainly understood the real British Industrial revolution well enough as a model for a lot of what I had in mind, so I poured out the first two books with satisfying stories that worked for me. This was followed by a pause for life events (all better now), and then I started to put the third book together, eager to begin releases. And then I realized… my understanding of the Industrial Revolution was clear enough, but my understanding of living through it — dealing with urban life, transportation, servants, architecture, etc., was somewhat… inadequate for my purpose in my built-world.

Without a slavish correspondence (and no Romance-with-a-capital-R components), there is nonetheless a whiff of the British Regency period about the world in question, that being a style and idiom I've always enjoyed culturally. But it turns out there is an awful lot of difference between appreciating that world when you read a story set there, and deeply understanding its constraints so that you can build a (modified-for-Fantasy) world out of its unified and interwoven elements.

This didn't matter for the first book, which took place in a static situation as a setup for the foundational hero's origin. After all, I wasn't writing a real historical novel. But once I started moving the timeline along with subsequent events I needed to understand in deep detail just how to restore a ruined urban guild hall, the history of urban guilds, how to acquire servant staff, choose transportation and freight options, charge for a student's enrollment, build and fund businesses, deal with foreign ambassadors, etc.

This wasn't the real world — I could still make everything up — but it wasn't Elfland, either. This was closely-enough based on a real model that I couldn't arbitrarily impose my will. I needed to operate within the reasonable options of an integrated worldview. If I wasn't going to have magical critters or powers of flight, then I had to understand the development and economics of, for example, wheeled transportation and its reasons to come up with a plausible version instantiated in my own world. It wasn't a matter of coming up with one generic coach for transportation through a generic medieval fantasy forest — it was a matter of fashions in carriages, stabling horses in cities, specialized servants, street cleaning, omnibuses, and so forth. Hand-wavium wasn't going to cut it.

The historic transition in domestic architectures that mirrored changes in wood vs coal fuels over the life of a 400-year old building; the fashions in privacy concerns that swept servants into their own rooms and passages; the transitions of heating and plumbing and communication infrastructures — all of these were incidental to the “real” events that made up the important parts of the story, but they needed to be internally self-consistent, and the real-world models were a good place to start. All of these constraints needed to be respected, or at the least violated with plausible explanations where necessary. Otherwise the same sort of “that's not how that works!” objection that impossible chemistry elicits in bad SciFi would throw the reader right out of the trance.

It turned out that my detailed background in early-modern urban life was inadequately tethered (for my needs) to the mutual independencies of all the cultural areas (chamberpots => servants' stairs; fireplace cleaning => early morning housemaids; lack of bleaching yards in urban households => urban laundry services; lack of home farms/dairies => urban marketing, hay deliveries, etc. And, of course, all of this has an impact on economic behaviors.

Well (dusting my hands off) — that's all fixed now. I've done quite a lot of reading in these areas to inform my needs for a verisimilitude that makes economic and cultural sense in those background settings so that the real story can shine through. One of the good things about not releasing the first books in a series right away is that those changes can be made before a reader arrives.

That image of the guild hall, above? All 5 floors (and the 2 sub-basements) have maps now…

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One Comment

  1. I’ve done my own worldbuilding – I write mainstream fiction – but nowhere near this degree. Kudos!

    June 24, 2022

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