World-Building: The Story Harvest

This is the idea of going through the closest real-world analogue(s) to the world you are building and collecting as many cool images, quotes, events, anecdotes, sayings, and stories as you can find. Focus on details that make the people seem real, like the living, breathing individuals they once were. What makes real humans who lived a thousand years ago live again for you, in your imagination, can help bring your fictional characters to life too.

You might have heard of this idea by other terms, such as reference, or research. That’s exactly what it is, though it sounds much less exciting than a story harvest, right? Names are important, which is another topic for another day. For now, let’s talk about how you can be lazy and let the real world do some of the essential work for you.

We don’t build worlds in a vacuum. There are two reasons why this matters: it makes life a little easier for you, and it makes understanding your world a little easier for your audience.

Earth’s history is full of billions of people who have lived their stories, leaving all manner of intriguing details and tales from which we can draw inspiration. We might as well use them.


Lazy Time

Almost all fictional worlds take most real-world things for granted. Magic aside, gravity makes things fall to the floor, water doesn’t flow uphill, and time travels in one direction. Physics aside, the humans in your world are likely to be happy when you give them precious gifts, and upset if you punch them in the nose, like real people. While they may have different cultures and live in a world with unfamiliar geography, the people in your world will probably behave in recognisable ways. This saves you loads of time.

Most fictional worlds use a real-world culture or two as their basis, whether this is made obvious or not. So, researching that history is a good place to start your own world-building. It could be as simple as a medieval European basis for a fantasy world, or the specific period of Japanese history I’m currently using.

I’m not suggesting that you should take everything wholesale without any spin of your own. Not at all. That wouldn’t be world-building; that would simply be writing history books. What I do instead is use the framework of a real, functioning, coherent world from history to paint in the broad strokes of the fictional world I want to build on top. That saves me a bunch of time, gives me a coherent foundation, and also offers me thousands of intriguing details that make my imaginary world seem more credible. This believable basis helps to ground the giant submarines, demons, and technomagi that I want to add on top.

For instance, let’s imagine that I’m writing a Victorian steampunk adventure. Why reinvent the way the London sewage system worked if it’s not a big part of your story? Why not leave the cab system as it was? Do you need to change it? Does it help add character to your world if you do? If not, if it only comes up in a passing comment, then why not just assume that these bits are the same, then if they ever come up you can use the real-world reference for them. You will absolutely need to consider how your wacky stuff interacts with and changes the way the basics work, if it does, but that’s much less work that detailing all of it from scratch. In this way, by using real-world references for some of your fictional world, you are left with more time to work on the innovative and characterful stuff.

One more thought: story harvests are a great shorthand to get you started. By assuming that, say, our sewage system is as it really was, we can call that done for now and move on to the next bit. However, if there was ever a reason to return to that question later, we can always add detail and change things up, as long as we can stay consistent with whatever we’ve already finalised. If you’re anything like me, you’re likely to want to change at least some of the early pieces when you get to the later elements, and see how some of the ramifications of your latest cool idea impact where you started. That’s why you write several drafts…


Easy Comprehension

The other thing that’s good about using real-world reference is that it helps your audience to navigate round the new stuff more easily. If everything is unfamiliar, then they are going to really struggle. The knack is to change just enough to make your work feel fresh and engaging, without changing so much that your reader hasn’t got a clue where to start.

As I’ve said before, people ask for the new and buy the familiar. So, you must give them something that they will find recognisable for them to start with.

That leads on to period character. Chances are that yours is not the first example of a fantasy world, steampunk environment, or whatever you’re working on that your audience has encountered. They will have expectations. You need to either meet these or usurp them cleverly. Twisting things is by far the more dangerous route, but the most rewarding if you can pull it off. Just remember that you can’t do it all the time or they will lose their footing.


Mythical Japan

For my fantasy Japan, I’ve been reading all sorts of things, though I seem to have gone down an intriguing rabbit hole of literary forms at the moment. Understanding how they wrote, and the topics they focussed on, tells me something about the culture as well as including all manner of potentially helpful period detail. It also gives me a framework for any written work I want to add to my version or provide as a background. Is this level of detail necessary? You’ll have to decide for yourself. Personally, I enjoy finding out, and I also enjoy knowing that my world makes sense, even if how it does so is never explained to my audience. As the creator’s enjoyment of the process often comes through in the form of a better creation, I take this as a good sign that I will end up with a result that I am happy with. Well, as happy as a creative ever is with their own work!

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6 Responses to World-Building: The Story Harvest

  1. tomsonn says:

    Usually people do just that, take something wholesale and then try to personalize it a bit, often in trivial ways. Sadly, the end result can sell really well. Probably because most of the time the core audience just wants more of what they already have, and is intellectually too lazy to make an effort in understanding something new/different. It’s the secret behind GW’s Old World for example. Lazy Eurofantasy, but still much beloved decades after its invention and years after its demise.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Much beloved indeed. Apparently the Old World is coming back too.

      You say “Sadly the end result can sell really well”. Obviously that encourages people to do it again, but what alternative are you imagining that you would prefer? Can you give examples of what you think breaks this mode?

      One of the reasons I chose this topic is that I’ve heard a few people over the years suggest that they were going to create a world that was entirely new; not based on any previous culture. Personally, I can’t see how that’s actually possible, and as far as I know none of these ideas has ever seen the light of day. This makes me think that their proposal is a Boojum masquerading as a Snark. Sounds good, but is actually a trap.

      Even the most peculiar worlds I can think of, like those in the novels White Light or On, or some of the alien planets in old Analog SF shorts, are ultimately based on the idea of a familiar foundation with a twist. Done well, this idea produces great results. Done badly, it produces rubbish. I don’t think it’s a lack of newness, I think it’s a lack of quality that’s the problem here.

  2. tornquistd says:

    I am a history and reading junky so my reaction to fantasy worlds is going to tend to be very critical. When you are on the clock and building a fantasy world for profit the real problem would be spending to much time on it and over building it. If it is something primarily for myself to use for background and entertainment that is not a problem.

    I find non historical things in a fantasy world very jarring unless it is needed to support the fantasy so in a way it makes me a history snob and lazy because the bulk of my “fantasy” is really lifted from history. History snob is also a thing I have run across in model railroading and that needs to be tempered because the true color of diaper wraps in the middle ages normally would not be a detail that matters.

    In general I select my historical sources and work the small amount of fantasy required to make it interesting. There is a vexing problem that we are always finding new information on history and that can expose historical things in your fantasy world that turned out to be non historical which adds value to it being “fantasy” because you don’t have to rework it.

    A lot of fantasy worlds do not provide good a reasons for conflict or politics when history provides so many examples. One other area often overlooked is business and trade which are underdeveloped as a matter of course. I guess economists normally do not write fantasy novels on the side.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Do you think people would read economics-heavy fantasy novels? There may be many frustrated economists writing them, and just no audience for it.

      • tornquistd says:

        We can assume people are not that interested in details when reading novels. There is a lot of economics impacting our lives that we pick up on so there is no reason not to use solid reasons for the motives of characters in novels that have a bit of dimension. Getting rich by going to war is a common thing. It is normal to use excuses for starting a war when the real goal was taking other peoples land and/or wealth. The most interesting thing is how often leaders go through the bother of making up excuses for war. It is interesting to filter things like the Old World through this type of filter to see if motives are realistic. I don’t like it when races are assigned to evil and prefer evil motives. Within any group going to war it can be expected that there would be some who did not accept the excuses which could make it interesting even at the level of a game.

        • Quirkworthy says:

          You’re right that avarice is often an important root cause of war. However, there are always layers to the excuses, and not everyone is privy to, or buys into, each layer. So while the first, top layer excuse is that the enemy did evil thing X, there is plenty of possibility that this is an excuse for grabbing land. Delving into this there may be nuances to it, or there may be another reason under this. It may not be just about land, it may be vengeance for some family slight. Or it could be a distraction for something going on in the aggressor culture. How many politicians can you think of who’ve gone to war to avoid political troubles at home? “We must all stand together against our common enemy”.

          Combinations are also common. You might go to war for a combination of reasons which on their own would not be enough. The accumulation is too much to ignore. In this case, you could genuinely believe that the enemy is evil and needs removing, but it doesn’t hurt that you’d get more land and calm the politics at home. Win, win, win. Individuals may believe some, all, or none of these, and could have their own agendas on top.

          Reality, and therefore stories, are rarely as simple as the headline reason for anything.

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