The cover art for Katharine Kerr’s Daggerspell, by Keith Parkinson
Worldbuilding is an art in itself, a process that requires us to think about a range of different topics from geography to economics. We often find ourselves concocting detailed timelines showing the various wars, famines, necromancy-aided zombie outbreaks, dragon attacks, royal successions, orc invasions and other major incidents, and sketching out maps of the entire globe, with even the most far-flung nation states named and their kings, queens, customs and preferred methods of warfare carefully outlined. The reader might never even glimpse these places, or find them mentioned in the story, but that’s often the way with worldbuilding. Most of the hard work is hidden behind the text, never to be seen.
But sometimes we can overlook the simplest and most evocative method or worldbuilding: the exploration of the immediate world. It’s the struggle between the grand and the granular vision; do we peer into the distance and dream of what might lie beyond those gleaming, sun-clad peaks, or do we instead choose to describe how the hero’s wizened guide picks his teeth with what looks like an arrowhead which hangs fixed from his wrinkled neck on a filthy leather band?
Let’s think about the arrowhead. Perhaps our hero is erudite enough to know the history of this part of our world. She astutely judges the guide to be some years shy of sixty, though his hard life has made him seem decades older. From this, she deduces that he might have been around when the kingdom was attacked by the Gorrokhin Flood, a horde of warped creatures in the sway of a cabal of mad sorcerers. She might also know that the Gorrokhin were beaten back not by the celebrated Greatswords of the King’s Own, or by the well-armed militias, but by a large band of local huntsmen who placed themselves in harm’s way, completely unarmoured, with only their bows and arrows to protect them. At this moment, she sees the crooked guide in a different light. Pities him perhaps, that his glorious courage had not been better rewarded. That most – but not her, not now – might see him as a mere peasant offering to lead travellers through the countryside for a few copper pieces.
This tiny detail lets us peek into the history of the immediate world. Not the globe, with its distant power brokers, pensive empires and fabulous beasts, but the people around the protagonists. Their history, their pathos. By paying this kind of attention, we end up crafting a lived-in world, a place that feels authentic.
The Road Itself
I was clearing out some old books recently – a pretty gruelling experience in which I discovered not only the frightening number of books I purchased in recent years, but how many of them I hadn’t managed to read – and came across English Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages. Published by J. J. Jusserand, it’s precisely the kind of charming old book in which wisdom is expressed in that archaic and convoluted way that we might call flowery and ‘very much of its time’. I can’t judge this too harshly, of course; it was published in 1889… and besides, that’s how I write now, so how can I point fingers at good old Triple-J?
Flicking through it, I found a lot of stuff that resonated with me, beavering away as I am beneath the mantle of fantasy writer. Things I would have found tedious before seem vitally important now. Take, for instance, the focus of the very first chapter: roads and bridges.
Now this is what I mean by the immediate world, the granular detail rather than the grand vista. What could be more commonplace, more emblematic of a fantasy world, than a battered old bridge over a trickling stream in the depths of the darkest forest? We can already hear the staccato clacking of the horse as it tentatively picks its way across the stones, unsure of its footing. Will the bridge hold? It’s sure to tumble down one day. Perhaps today?
But this bit of mild peril isn’t the point. I’m interested here in what our bridge might tell us about the world in which it finds itself. Jusserand’s book talks of the trinoda necessitas, the three obligations of the King’s subjects, one of these being the repairing of bridges. Now, most worlds we build are much like our own. They are shaped by three things: gods, gold and greed. The building and maintenance of bridges in England was seen as “pious and meritorious work”; it’s no coincidence that the word Pontiff means bridge-builder.
Bridges allowed the lifeblood of the nation to flow. And this lifeblood was of course labour, and therefore money. Jusserand tells us of the unscrupulous Godfrey Pratt who installed iron bars and a toll, charging travellers for the right to cross his bridge, but allowing nobility to cross for free (since they had the power to censure him). He was eventually removed from duty by an abbot who swiftly abolished the toll. Now there was a bridge with a story to tell.
We can unpack all of this. The drama tells us that the church had a great deal of power, as did the nobility. In this society money is exchanged for services. There must also be reasonable enforcement of the law, too, since Pratt wasn’t caved in with a mace for daring to try and extort money from wayfarers.
It’s not just the bridges that tell a story about the society that produced them. Jusserand also details how the Romans constructed their roads.
Pavimentum, or foundation, fine earth, hard beaten in.
Statumen, or bed of the road, composed of large stones, sometimes mixed with mortar.
Ruderatio, or small stones well mixed with mortar.
Nucleus, formed by mixing lime, chalk, pounded brick or tile; or gravel, sand, and lime mixed with clay.
Upon this was laid the surface of the paved road, technically called the summum dorsum.
Not only is this interesting (if you’re into that kind of thing) but we can start to see how even the roads beneath a traveller’s feet can reveal a violent history of invasion, domination, rebellion and overthrow. The people who built these roads are no longer present, their empire no longer in command. But the roads themselves remain, and are absolutely essential to the function of the nation.
Dipping into Jusserand’s book helped to crystallise those ideas I was having about the importance of small details and perhaps from now on I’ll try to pay more attention to the immediate environment in my worldbuilding. I’ll think not only about the distant past, the loftiest peaks and the greatest wars, but also of the charms around the necks of vagrants, the old bridges and the roads that run from city to city over which tradesmen travel in horse and cart, without themselves looking down at the rich history beneath hoof and wheel.
Sure, we want to dream big. We want to show the reader how vast our world is and what wonders await later in our series. But we should never forget how the simplest, smallest details – those things that are closest, rather than hugely distant – can bring a world to life.
Chris O’Mara is a fantasy writer. His novel Healer’s Ruin is available on Amazon in ebook and paperback format. You can read it for free with Amazon Prime.