enismirdal: (Bee!12)
[personal profile] enismirdal
I imagine some other writery types on LJ can relate to this...

World-building is jolly good fun when you're shaping an original world - or even fleshing out one someone else made. But I've been finding lately it's very easy to get a bit carried away, especially if you have areas of personal academic interest or expertise. Unfortunately for me, a combined interest in the history of Normal People, and a job that is as much international development as it is research means I have had time to do a fair bit of musing about how a pre- or non-industrial village in a fictional fantasy pre-industrial (with or without magic) country might or might not work.

So you start with your character and their village. You decide the country will be temperate, perhaps cold end of Cfb climate, similar to the coldest and rainiest bits of the UK. Great. The character lives on the coast, in a small village. After some musing, you decide it's a limestone bedrock.

Fine, what does the village do to support itself? Well, it's coastal, so there's probably a fair bit of marine economy - fishing? OK, who goes fishing - everyone? Just the men? All the men, or just some? What do they catch - deep sea fish? Shallow water fish? Flatfish from the bottom? Do they just catch shellfish of some description? What do the women/non fisherfolk do - can they collect anything from the shore?

But people can't just live on fish, so what forms the staple diet? You've established it's pretty windswept, and limestone soil means alkaline, so anything acid-loving is out. The soils, you decide, are rubbish - along with the cold and wet climate, that probably means large-scale wheat cultivation may be tricky. So what's the main starch? Potatoes? Well, then you have to take into account that potatoes are introduced to Europe, so you're shifting the available botanical diversity and have to consider why potatoes and not quinoa/tarwi/tomatoes and so on... Maize won't grow (too cold), cassava likewise (same reason). Barley might - if your character is eating a lot of barley bread, does she cook it at home - can all the households afford a bread oven and the fuel to run it? Perhaps you should invent another sort of starchy root, like a temperate cassava, that works on poor soils?

What are they using to fuel their cooking fires? If you've got a windswept landscape and poor soils and have already decided there isn't a lot of woodland, firewood will be expensive, right? But it's alkaline soils so there won't be peat or heather to burn (indeed, Ericaceae in general probably won't be an option). Dung? Driftwood? Invent a plant that grows like heather, but on alkaline soil?

Do the people keep livestock? If so, how many, and where? If timber is expensive, what are houses made of? Where do people get cooking utensils - is there a smith or a wood-turner in the village, or must they trade? If so, what do they trade? How do they get new clothes - can they grow flax for linen? Are there are enough sheep to provide wool? Do they have access to milk, cheese, butter in any quantity? What do they eat over winter? What do they do for vitamin C? Do they drink water, small beer, tea or something else? Is anyone in the village literate?

Where else do they travel to - nearby towns? Do they have a road? Who else travels that road? Where is the next nearest village? Do they talk to the people there? Do they intermarry a lot, a little? Does the character have extended family in those other villages, or in her own village? In pre-industrial societies with large families, I guess it's pretty normal for families to be large - how far, in this one, would her parents siblings' or grandparents' siblings have moved away? How many family members would she associate with growing up - cousins? Second cousins?

...yeah, it all gets quite intense.

I'm starting to realise not all these things necessarily have to be dealt with in the text of a story. Perhaps I need to make a personal Wiki-style set of backing documents that deal with this stuff and then I can draw on it as needed where it's actually critical to the story to know whether or not they would realistically own an oak table or stuff their mattresses with heather, straw, grass or something else!

Date: 6 Nov 2016 20:59 (UTC)
From: [identity profile] cartesiandaemon.livejournal.com
I think the assemble it offline and incorporate what's needed is a good approach. I think having some details *does* help -- it sometimes creates a richer story, where you bring in details you otherwise wouldn't have thought of, and avoids bloopers where you never decided if the population is X or 10 times X. But it does feel like it can be wasted, alas.

Date: 6 Nov 2016 21:35 (UTC)
From: [identity profile] enismirdal.livejournal.com
Yeah, I guess the "wasted effort" bit can be a bit sad, and explains some novels that spend so much time on the worldbuilding they never seem to get to the characterisation or plot and it all gets rather tiresome. But when you're interested in a world and want to make sure the internal logic works, it's definitely nice to have the intricacies worked out. :)

Date: 7 Nov 2016 10:28 (UTC)
ext_45018: (joy!)
From: [identity profile] oloriel.livejournal.com
Some of their fuel could be driftwood. As a seaside place, they could also import wood or coal from elsewhere, as long as they have some bargaining commodity (chalk? seaweed?). Not every household needs their own bread-oven; in fact, communal bread-ovens were extremely common around here, and some villages still have theirs today. It must have been similar in other places. Beans and peas love alkaline soils. Sheep sound good, they cover a lot of needs - wool, milk, meat, dung - and more or less take care of themselves. Mattresses can be stuffed with eelgrass, which is apparently also great for thatching roofs...

Yes, a personal Wiki sounds like a good idea. It's so much fun to explore a world, but all the details can bog down a story!

Date: 7 Nov 2016 18:10 (UTC)
From: [identity profile] enismirdal.livejournal.com
Hahah, yes, thanks. I came up with answers to all the main questions (and wanted a chance to play around with the botany, mix up European and imaginary species, etc. anyway) so I think I'm covered, but your perspective is useful. I did indeed assume communal bread oven after too much time spent hanging around in Viking villages and Swedish outdoor museums, etc.!

You're right about details! So easy to obsess over making sure everything makes sense! (I get really carried away with geography and sizes, too - trying to work out how many people realistically live in a certain town, how many horses might be able to be kept and pastured in the King's stables, and how on earth that would work if the palace is in the middle of a city, and how they'd all get fed and exercised, and where everyone lived, and where the roads went, and if character D decided to go for a walk, where could he go safely, where might he wander by mistake, etc...) Then I understood why some books came with not just a country map, but plans of actual towns and everything...

Date: 8 Nov 2016 13:34 (UTC)
ext_45018: (book love)
From: [identity profile] oloriel.livejournal.com
No problem! (Or rather, sorry!) I figured you'd already answered these questions and only listed them to show how one thing led to another - but it's way too much fun to play even with other people's worldbuilding. >_>

Heh, I tend to be great at details of botany and everyday life, but never stop to consider distances and numbers. Then suddenly the question arises just how many people are going to attend that royal feast and how far/for how long have they travelled? And if character A can ride to the next village over to get to the market, why can't she go the same distance in the other direction? OK, let's remove the big city a big further from character A's homestead... but now an obscure reference in chapter 1 will no longer work and have to be rewritten... if only I had thought about this from the beginning! ;)
So although there is such a thing as overthinking stuff, there's also the problem of Not Having Done Your Homework. Better to have a lot of unused material. It can always be used to cobble together A Geography Of X-World (possibly alongside A History Of X-World and An Ethnography Of X-World) to be published separately. Or to kick of the Role-Playing system to accompany your books! XD
Edited Date: 8 Nov 2016 13:38 (UTC)

Date: 7 Nov 2016 11:37 (UTC)
From: [identity profile] naath.livejournal.com
Ovens> intermediate between 'cook at home' and 'buy' is 'assemble at home and use communal oven'; dunno how much that was done.

If you fish you trade fish. Lots of lovely fish. Which must be moved fast, so you have a good road to the nearest market town, or sail them round the coast. You might also sell salt, if you can extract it from the water or if there are suitable deposits.

Sheep'll put up with a lot in terms of shit weather. England in reality has an early and thriving trade with the low countries in cloth (by the 16th century we exported fleece and imported the finest wool cloth...) especially linens. Once serfdom in abolished we have a lot more mobility than anyone ever thinks. Not *far* far (for most people), but not "never leave village of birth" either.

Date: 7 Nov 2016 18:19 (UTC)
From: [identity profile] enismirdal.livejournal.com
Heh, agreed - thanks for the thoughts. Most of the above musings were rhetorical, largely stuff I'd already (somewhat) sorted by plundering European botany/natural history or inventing additions to it.

Yes, fish certainly makes sense as a commodity (though of course, not a lot of point trading fish with the next village along if they also have a major fishing industry growing - need to sell fish to someone who does not have fish). But if salted or smoked you have much more flexibility. And I guess some shellfish can be transported live, to some extent, if you have roads and wheels.

Transporting fish by water makes sense. I heard in a talk a few weeks ago that battles around Scandinavia in the 11th century tended to come to a grinding halt every year for a couple of months, during the herring fishing season, because at that point most of the boats were owned by fisherfolk and they needed them back for the herring fishing, so the armies found themselves rather without transport. So I guess even though they had home ports the boats were getting around a lot and being fairly busy doing things other than just catching fish!

It's really quite good fun just thinking about the ins and outs of it all. Especially when you get into optional stuff like customs and traditions where you can get away with more tenuous logical links when deciding do $social group cover their heads in public, how do they commemorate the dead or what colours are children's toys painted in!

Date: 10 Nov 2016 18:37 (UTC)
From: [identity profile] wellinghall.livejournal.com
I am not really a writery type or a gamery type, but I do think about writing and gaming ;-)

I also drew parallels with Orkney, and other north Atlantic island groups, after reading your post. There, wood wasn't just expensive, it was almost non-existent. But there was driftwood; flotsam and jetsam; the blessed bounty of a wrecked ship; and imports from Scandinavia, up to and including flatpack ships and houses.

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