World-building is a concept that’s often tossed around by writers of dystopian, science fiction and fantasy novelists. Creating a believable story setting with its own rules, history, geography, and evolution. It is, basically, becoming the god of your own little universe.
It’s the same with historical fiction. Only we haveto share godliness with history. Historical fantasy gives a little more flexibility to the author god, as does alternative history. But at the end of the day, all of us have to write a world that is rich, diverse, understandable—believable.
I write straight historical fiction. Recently, someone commented that I could narrow this down and say that I write biographical fiction.
My characters were real. They lived real lives in real buildings through real history. How much world building is there in that?
Tons. I have to approach my novels as if I am writing a completely foreign and unknown world—because in many cases, I am. I have to write for the people who come to my books knowing nothing about the Tudors—or knowing the very basics.
I have to build a world the reader can submerge himself in. It’s one of the reasons I love doing what I do.
These are some tricks I’ve picked up along the way, which I think apply to all story worlds—be they fantasy, sci-fi, historical or even contemporary.
- Know your geography. Hills, grasslands, forests, oceans, rivers. Was there litter? Deforestation? How close together are the buildings—if there are any at all? How long does it take to get from one location to another? Over what kinds of roads? Using what kinds of transportation? (example: The Tudors did not travel over tarmac in sprung carriages. They rode horseback on muddy roads and their goods rode in unsprung wagons. It could take an entire day to travel 20 miles. Or they traveled by barge on a river—this is why so many of Henry VIII’s palaces are prime waterfront locations.)
- Know your climate. Hot, cold, windy, rainy. Does it snow? How often and how deep? Are there hurricanes? Droughts? Do people depend on the weather for sustenance? Are they barred from travel because of inclement weather?
- Know your sensory experiences. What does your world smell like? Taste like? What sounds are regular? Which sounds that we take for granted are missing? What is the lighting like? What colors are prominent? (example: There is a fantastic UK television program called Time Team, where a crew of archaeologists have three days to solve a question with an archaeological dig. I watched one a few years ago about Nonsuch Palace. In the course of the program, they recreate what the building might have looked like, and to my surprise, I discovered that the Tudors loved gaudy colors. They accentuated the red of the brick and the white of the mortar, and inside, those lovely faded tapestries that we see today were actually eye-bendingly vivid.)
- Know your rules. This applies to any and all story worlds. If you create a world where dragons don’t exist, you can’t put one in. If magic is possible, it has to be created and utilized according to strict procedures. If decisions are made by a council, so be it. If they’re made by a king, give him the power. If women are allowed to vote or speak or choose, let them. But if they’re not, it has to affect them—and the reader.
- Know your history. I know this seems like a no-brainer, since we are a blog that talks primarily about historical fiction. We need to know the rules, attitudes and cultural geography of our settings because that’s our world. But I think world building for all genres also requires that the author knows the past. What happens before? Were there wars that affected the decisions of the story’s present? Rulers that were admired? Decisions that were made that specifically included or excluded members of the population? And sometimes, writing historical fiction, we also need to know the future. We can foreshadow events that our characters can’t envision (such as Anne Boleyn’s eventual fall) and we can catch ourselves in accidental anachronisms (example: Despite tea time being a quintessentially English experience, the Tudors did not indulge in it—because it was introduced by Charles II’s wife, Catherine of Braganza–more than half a century after the last Tudor’s death).
No matter what your genre, world building is a grand adventure. Whether your concepts come from your imagination or from historical documents, there is so much you can do to create a believable story setting, fully alive with all five senses. The biggest trick is to find the balance between establishing a rich story world and overwhelming the reader with too much detail. Sometimes, it’s important just for the writer to know—you don’t have to share it all, but the richness of your own knowledge will imbue your novel with life on every page.