Sunday, January 17, 2021

World-Building The Built World

'World is crazier and more of it than we think' Louis MacNeice, Snow

Worldbuilding is hard only if you pay too much attention to it. Less is almost always better than more. Use details sparingly rather than to drown the reader in intricate descriptions and faux exotica; question your first and second thoughts; set out a few basic parameters, find your character and start the story rather than fleshing out every detail of the landscape, drawing maps, and preparing recipe cards and fashion plates before writing the first sentence. Wherever possible, scatter clues and trust the reader to put them together; give them the space to see the world for themselves rather than crowd out their imagination with elaborate and burdensome detail.

Most of the heavy lifting for the worldbuilding of War of the Maps was already done for me in a speculative scientific paper, 'Dyson Spheres around White Dwarfs' by Ibrahim Semiz and Selim Oǧur. That gave me the basic idea: a very large artificial world wrapped around a dead star, its surface a world ocean in which maps skinned from planets were set. Almost everything else was tipped in as the story progressed. Discovering details essential to the story as it rolls out gives space and flexibility to hint at the kind of random, illogical, crazy beauty of the actual world; the exclusionary scaffolds of rigid logic too often do not.

And because the novel is written in close third person, everything is filtered through the sensibility of the main character, focusing on things that he would think important or memorable or odd, evoking the mundane stuff of his life by allusion or by borrowing the perspectives of others. The fighting staff he carries isn't described in any particular detail until someone else becomes interested in it; as a child living in a desert village he helped herd cacti up and down a mountain but doesn't think of the specifics of cactus herding until he's questioned about it; his desert childhood makes him pay particular attention to water, providing a theme running through the narrative, stitching character and world together.

Some of the furnishings came from searches for specific items, but the method I most prefer is a kind of bricolage, tipping in places as disparate as a spring in Death Valley, a courtyard glimpsed in Shanghai, Fay Godwin's photograph of a canal in the Pennines, the patina of the snout of a statue of a dog in Edinburgh, radio telescopes in a Cambridgeshire field, a square in one hilltop village in Italy and the painted doors of houses in another, mangrove islands off the coast of Florida . . . Chosen for their evocation of atmosphere and emotion, and because they seemed, somehow, to fit the internal consistency, the feel, of the novel. Subjectivity over objectivity, because we are not cameras, and novels aren't diagrams or photographs.


Blogger Peter D. Tillman said...

Interesting essay on the novel background. Now I'm ready to read it!

All best for 2021, Pete Tillman

January 19, 2021 8:55 am  

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