I am pretty excited, I must admit. A well-known, well-established agent just requested the full manuscript of Emergence for review. LOVE IT! Hope springs eternal. But let’s talk about worldbuilding.
Does world-building have a dash in it? Still not sure about that…
One of my goals in The Tome of Greystone is originality. I don’t want to fall into the trap of re-hashing others ideas and concepts, no matter how cool they are and how excellently they would fit. A few months ago, I came across a web page listing something like 75 questions for the aspiring fantasy author. The instructions were to stop your writing project immediately if you answer “yes” to ANY of the questions because you are just copying fantasy classics. I started into the questions with a little trepidation… would I pass? Or was I actually no where near as original as I hoped?
I passed with flying colors. The questions were really just trying to weed out copy-cats of The Lord of the Rings and similar icons, so it wasn’t really hard. The closest I got to failing was the questions “Are you writing book one of a trilogy?”. Technically I could say yes, except for the fact that this trilogy is itself just the first entry in a larger set of books (like, 9 trilogies), so I let myself off the hook.
But I already knew that The Tome of Greystone was going to be far from Tolkien-esque in most ways. At the outset I determined that there would be no elves or dwarves or things like orcs nor wizards with staves in the books (okay, I do have dragons… eventually. Can’t win ’em all!). I even advertise this lack of fantasy norms in my oft-mailed query letter. But originality needs to go deeper than just NOT copying the greats. So here is how I would describe the key requirements for original world-building – as I applied them in Emergence.
1) Humans and Non-Human Races: Yeah, they just need to be new. I just don’t feel that any new fantasy is going to cut it nowadays if it features traditional Tolkien-AD&D elves, dwarves, half-elves, etc. I decided to go in another direction entirely. EVERYONE is human in the Lands of Greystone, with the exception of the dragons (which really are a race, but a very small one) and a few of the monsters (which are creations/servants and don’t really count as races). Of course, since the people of Greystone believe in neither monsters nor dragons, just the humans really register.
2) The Calendar: Most fantasy that I have read features pretty cool new takes on how different imaginary people-groups mark time. I think this is critical, and really helps with the immersive nature of good fantasy. I cheated a little here. The idea of making up names for months of the calendar and expecting readers to learn them gave me a headache. Then I thought, who needs 12 months anyway? So I created a 4-month calendar based on the simple division of seasons. Different, but instantly recognizable and relate-able to the reader (even the young reader). Generally speaking, each year is made up of 4 seasons called, crazily enough, Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter (always capitalized). Each Season is 91 days long. yes, I know, 364-ish days comprising a year is NOT original. Whatever. So the date might be Spring 44th, or the 1st of Fall, or Winter 89th.
Handling years is much easier. In Greystone they use the Ramagan Calendar (RC), named after some long-dead researcher named Fore Ramago. He created number system for the years of recorded history that the people of the known Land have accumulated. This was not trivial, since there are almost no historical documents available that are more than 300 years old. Emergence begins in RC 1299. It’s also just as common for nations to number their years by the current ruling monarch, such as “Year of the King 22”.
3) Economics: I really wanted to do a good job on this aspect of The Tome of Greystone. Money systems, trade, business, commerce, banking, and shopping all need be more than original… they need to be natural. In the same way that we never stop to think about the existence of banks and money, about the cost of goods and services, about salaries and social classes, the characters in a good fantasy need to be naturally cognizant of such things. So the systems of commerce and money and trade need to be defined in detail behind the scenes in advance. Once that’s done, bits and pieces of these systems can be dropped into the story whenever it makes sense. I won’t go into detail here about the monetary systems of the Protectorates and surrounding countries, but they’re pretty complete. But at the same time, I hope not so complex as to become annoying.
4) Politics: Just as with economics, politics are huge. I have never seen a writer manage this part of world-building as well as Robert Jordan in The Wheel of Time. Second best would probably be David Eddings’ Belgariad. Without going to the level of those great authors, I do try to make the political machinations in Greystone original and compelling. But since they are NOT central to the story, a balance needs to be maintained.
5) People and Places: Idiosyncrasies, both regional and even at the city or town level, are a real part of our daily lives. Where I live near Cincinnati, there is an established norm for what people are like on the “West Side” of town versus the “East Side”. All of us can recognize a New York accent when we hear one. We all expect a certain type of behavior when we hear the phrase “Southern Hospitality”. Building these types of norms into the known Land is critical, I believe, for making the world more real. But they need to be original to the greatest extent possible… not copied from the accepted standards for fantasy novels (if such standards exist).
That’s all for now, friends! More to come…