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This Writing Life: A World from Scratch

22 May, 2012

As I bring one novel to an end (this week, if all goes to plan), it’s time for me to start thinking about the next. I tend not to think about sequels, or prequels, or stories in the same world when I start a new novel, because I always want to aim for something new and exciting. And when you’re writing fantasy, ‘new and exciting’ generally means building a new world, a secondary world, from scratch.

There are standard tropes in epic fantasy – the Medieval world, say, with wizards and kings and knights – but they’re not ones I’m particularly interested in writing about. In recent years, I’ve based aspects of my invented worlds on ancient China, Japan, and with my next novel, some combination of Persia, Egypt, Mesopotamia and the southern Mediterranean. How identifiable these historical real-world settings will be by the end of the novel differs with each project, but choosing the right background is generally how I start my world-building.

What comes next? In part, that depends on the project, but there are a number of aspects that are always useful to think about. Who’s in charge? What religion do these people follow? Where do they get their food? Who’s classed as an ‘outsider’ and how does that affect their life? There are perhaps an infinite number of questions you can ask when world-building, from religion and politics, down to whether there are public toilets, who empties them and what people use to clean their teeth.

Many of the answers to these questions might be found in study of the ancient society I’ve based my fantasy one on, but there can be other things to take into consideration. In fantasy, for example, magic is typically a major part of the world. Perhaps there are public toilets, but they’re magically cleaned by a never-ending spell every morning. Perhaps people use a similar spell to clean their teeth. Or perhaps magic exists at only the very top echelons of society, and there still have to exist men with muck carts and shovels, and the historical equivalent of toothbrushes for the masses.

Much of this world-building might never make it into the finished novel, but knowing your invented world as well as you possibly can is key to making it real for the reader. There can be a million things to think about, which sounds intimidating, but really doesn’t need to be. Some of my most intricate world-building has evolved along the way, rather than being planned out in the beginning – this is often the type of world-building that affects characters’ lives and really shapes the plot.

Still, whether you’re writing modern day romance or historical epic fantasy, world-building is one aspect of story you can’t ignore. My choice has always been to build my worlds from scratch, and enjoy every minute of making them as unique and interesting as possible.


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