I spent most of my years as a writer working in the real world. That is to say a world just like this one we all inhabit, give or take a few sideways trips into the Weird Zone. A ghost, a werewolf, strange things from beyond, the Fae making a trip into our realm. That sort of thing.
It can be a challenge, but it’s also a slightly easier route to take. How do I mean? Well, first, it can be a challenge because there’s research to do, isn’t there? Let’s say I want to set a story in London. I need to have a decent map or at least a few good reference guides. That’s a good starting point but it can’t actually give me the details of London that will cement the reality of that city in the minds of readers who have been to London. There are details that remain hidden away, like the scents that are common in certain areas, or the fashions that might be happening at a certain time. Say I want to set a book in the seventies. That’s going to be a very different section of London than it is today. More research.
Now if I want to take that same London and make it as real as possible, I need to talk to a few people who are either in London or visit frequently. I’ve been there exactly once, you see, and I loved it, but the entire trip is a blur of fond memories and could provide very little that stands out without some feedback from a few of my compatriots who know the city far better than I do.
What does it matter?
Someone, somewhere, reading my book has been to London. If I do my job the wrong way, if I get enough facts incorrectly assembled in my tale, they can no longer enjoy whatever story I am telling them. The suspension of disbelief has been broken and that sucks. I want to entertain ANYONE who reads my book. I know I will not always succeed, but I have to start by trying to get it right.
Another example for you: I know that the outbreak of Spanish Influenza was devastating. I can find statistics with ease, thanks to the Internet. What I can’t do is tell you what it was like. Not as big a problem as there aren’t that many people left who were alive when the outbreak happened, but I want to get a proper feel for the era, then I need to do my research and use my imagination in equal parts.
Now, let’s say I decide to do near future pace exploration. Time to pony up some serious research hours and figure out the details of space travel in the modern era. From here I can decide what leaps in technology have happened and I need to be able to make it all make sense to a complete layman because, frankly, no one wants to read a book for entertainment that requires a few doctorates in math, computer sciences, jet propulsion and astrophysics. And if they DO want to read that, I can pretty much guarantee they’ve come to the wrong place.
It’s a lot of work, especially if you want to get into more details about the world as it was or will be or the world away from your comfort zone. I cannot honestly describe the Vatican. I have never been there and I can guarantee that the culture is as alien to me as medieval China.
So, research, research, research.
I don’t need to do any of that for a fantasy world. The laws of physics are mine to shape. Do I want dragons in my world? Okay, sure, why not? How do they work? How big are they? Is the fire they breathe from the bowels of hell? Is it a naturally produced gas that they can only expel occasionally? Is it a sorcerous fire that generates only as they need it? I may never state which version of a dragon’s breath is accurate, but I need to KNOW which one works in my world. I need to work out the details if I’m going to use it, because if I fail to at least have a notion about that fact, then I can confuse myself on the way it works and contradict myself later.
Let me give you an example: I’ll not mention the author or the book, but while reading a very hefty apocalyptic novel by a British writer I know, he took me clean out of the story on two separate occasions by changing the skin tone, hair color and eye color of one of the leading ladies. Not a major crime, but it was something neither the author nor the editor ever noticed. She was dark-haired, fair skinned and freckled with green eyes. That detail was given to the reader. Later she was blonde, blue eyed and deeply tanned. I could have accepted the tanning, because we’re dealing with an end of the world scenario here. But later still she went back to dark-haired, fair skinned and freckled with green eyes. Again, it’s a quibble, but it was enough to remove me from the story and make be go back and double check that it was the author making the changes and not me.
If I decide that a world like Fellein is set with certain technologies and flavors, it has to be consistently set that way unless the transformation is part of the plot. Most of the soldiers in Fellein wield crossbows. Their enemies use bows of differing shapes and sizes because they make their own weapons as part of their culture. The soldiers from Fellein all use standardized shields and armor. Their enemies among the Sa’ba Taalor also make their own armor or sometimes wear none at all depending on their plans. The Fellein all go through the same training. The Sa’ba Taalor have a religion that stresses martial skills above all else. Their differences are designed to show the ways in which they have been raised.
I made a new world and that means knowing the rules it works by just as surely as I know the rules of modern warfare if I’m writing about how the US Army fights against its current enemies.
The difference is that I have to make the rules as I go along and I have to remember them consistently. The Sa’ba Taalor have seven gods. I know their names and the philosophies that their followers employ. I know what each god demands and what each follower is expected to do. I HAVE to know that, regardless of whether or not it is stated in the actual manuscript, because, again, internal logics must apply or the story cannot hold without causing confusion.
I can look at a map of the United States. I have to create a map for the continent of Fellein and the surrounding areas. (Said map has always been in my head, but as I write this an illustrator is currently creating a solid image the be shared soon.)
I need to know the socio-economic status of my characters. I need to know something about how sorcery works in the world I’ve created and just as importantly how it doesn’t work. I have to make the rules and then not break them.
For the life of me, I cannot tell you which is more difficult but I can tell you that I am loving the process of building a new world. Is it hard? Yes it is. Is it rewarding? Most decidedly so.
James A. Moore.