05 January 2007

Worldbuilding--the heart of a historical

The fantasy and sci-fi genres emphasize worldbuilding but until recently, we didn't hear a lot about it in the romance genre. Every story world must be carefully constructed, no matter what the genre. Some worlds may require more explanation than others, but details enhance any story as long as they complement rather than smother the emotional content.

An incredibly comprehensive site is Patricia Wrede's Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions. Since it's written for fantasy, it includes magic and so forth, but whether your story has a paranormal element or not, there are tons of questions about geography, social structure, political structure, economics, flora and fauna, ethics, the legal system, and a whole host of other topics. A writer who knows her world well enough to answer all these questions will undoubtedly create a believable world.

Need to see a map of your world? Holly Lisle tells us how she goes about generating a story map. I tried it and her techniques do help, even us artistically challenged people. (My son redrew my map, thank goodness!)

Did you know 100 stone equals 1,400 pounds? 3.52 Japanese koku? 19.48 Roman centumpondus? Here's a conversion table for mass and weight.

Other than character-building, I think worldbuilding is one of the truly fun aspects of writing a story. There are lots of good sites on the topic on the internet--a veritable candy store. Don't be afraid to use techniques of other genres, or to twist someone's technique to fit your own style and story.

Happy writing!

Coming soon: Faery Special Romances


Anonymous said...

Oh I think world building is really important in a historical setting, particularly when you are dealing with unusual historicals.
The author has to bring her concept of the world to life. She can not count on readers understanding the society that her characters are in. The more vivid the world, the more authentic it feels and the more willing people are to forgive.
You could argue that you need it in contemporary as well.
I did a workshop on this subject at last year's RNA conference and so it is v close to my heart. One of the big reasons after not enough focus on the romance that historical romances are rejected is that the setting feels flat and lifeless. Bring the world to life and you will have readers coming back time and again.

Ann Roth said...

Jacquie- What a neat way to look at worldbuilding. You're right. Every time we create a novel we are world building.

DDB said...

My love for historicals goes back to the early 70's when Avon released THE FLAME AND THE FLOWER. That book changed the publishing world.

Kathleen E. Woodiwiss recreated the way of life after the American Revolution and before the War of 1812. It was a world that drew me in.

When you build your world remember to include to the parts of life that would make life hard and mean.

I'm prompted to add that for me it would be the lack of modern medicine. It has become very clear to me in the last six weeks just how hard a world without today's medical care would have been.

My father is fighting stage 4 lung cancer. Even as little as fifty years ago there would have been nothing the medical community could do except heavy duty pain meds.

Also, add some fun. Then as now, most people can face any challenge with a little humor. Usually in the form of bad jokes.

Several years ago my husband's aunt died. She was cremated. As we were leaving the funeral home the owner had a small cardboard box that he offered to carry to the car for us.

There was no reason one of us couldn't carry the box. There was a short tug of war until the owner said, "I'll carry HER to the car." End of tug of war.

It was late. We were all tired and hungry. The funeral home arranged for us to eat at a local restaurant.

That's when the jokes started. The debate was whether or not to bring her in as the centerpiece.

The waitress was a little confused when we told her we hadn't been to a wedding but a funeral.

Arlene would have loved it.

Build a world where you would want to live. You are going to live in this world for the time it takes to write and edit your story.

Sherrie Holmes said...

In some stories, the setting is so importance that it's almost a character in itself, such as in Regencies. And you better get it right, or the Regency fans will moider ya!

And yet for all the background work that goes into world building, very little of it shows up in the actual story. (You aren't writing an encyclopedia!) But it is that same attention to detail that makes your story so believable when you incorporate little snippets of that world throughout your story.

There is no one chart or diagram that is better than all the others--writing is too individualistic for that. Find what works for YOUR worldbuilding and then go for it!

Great commentary, Jacquie. World building is just as important as character development, and that world is a character unto itself.

Delia DeLeest said...

I just made an entry in my writing journal about this very subject about a week ago. I had just finished reading a sci-fi book that didn't hold true to the rules of the world throughout the entire book. The inconsistancies frequently pulled me out of the story and distracted me to the point that if I hadn't dug my heels in to finish it, I would have given it a toss. World building is such an integral part of writing and enhancing a readers enjoyment.

PennyAsh1 said...

World building is important in any story. I think it's what makes your characters truly come alive.

Celia May Hart said...

Diana Gabaldon does incredible world building. Up to a fault, in fact. There was a scene in "Blood and Ashes" that I just finished reading (finally) where a woman pleaded "benefit of clergy". I blinked and said aloud: "I don't *think* so!".

She's right of course.

Bugger. Who knew?

I'm tiptoeing into the fantasy genre and tried Pat Wrede's questions and pretty much abandoned it for a more organic approach. That is, whatever my characters say, is so. And I just keep track of the glossary and what various things do, so I don't contradict myself later.

At least, that's the plan. It may bite me on the arse come Chapter 5.

The important thing with worldbuilding, no matter where or when, is that the reader doesn't notice that you're doing it. Bloody hard to do, but important.

Jacquie said...

Celia Mae,

I heartily agree that seamless worldbuilding is hard to do, especially since I'm one of the readers of the short attention span variety. Too much description, and the next thing I know, I'm on to the next page looking for something to happen.

So building the world can't be done in blocks or it just won't hold my attention. I have to slip it in with the way the character moves, reacts, and speaks. Only when it directly affects the character and moves the story forward, do I stay interested, so I try very hard to keep this in mind when I'm writing.

As a matter of fact, I abandoned what is probably a really good book by one of my very favorite authors just because the worldbuilding took up too much page space in correlation to actual story. I didn't have the patience to read any farther.

The balance of building a world is indeed a dicey situation, but one each writer has to resolve for her own style and preferences.