Ever since becoming a serious writer and embarking on the long hard road that is world building a fantasy world, I have been unable to read a novel only as a reader, instead my mind is focused on the aspects of planning that have gone into the work. Although I am usually quite impressed with the things that have gone into the novels that I read (speculative fiction mostly), I have never been so blown away as I was with the incredible detail that went into Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent Memoirs, a series of five books. If you haven’t read them I highly recommend it, check out my book review of the first book, A Natural History of Dragons.
The Lady Trent Memoirs are set in a Victorian-esque fantasy world where Isabella recounts her lifelong career as a dragon naturalist. As a writer the intimate parts of this world are so amazing to even think about as they must have been so much work to construct – they simply have to be mentioned and thought about. Who knows, they might even be of use to some of us writers.
Each novel in the series has a map at the beginning of the book – Book One the map is of Anthiope which is the continent that the novel takes place in. Book Two has a map of the countries that will be visited and it goes on like this throughout the series. This in itself is not particularly outstanding as many fantasy novels have maps to help readers visualise the world that the story takes place in, but it is very pleasing to have maps to look at whilst reading of Isabella’s adventures around the world and to see where she travels to.
Inspiration From Real Life
Having read the entire series (each book covering a different country or continent) I can feel confident in saying that I can see where Brennan has taken inspiration from real life countries, continents and peoples. Most definitely Eriga was inspired by the African continent; Vystrana and the Rock-Wyrms that Isabella researches were given an environment much like Scandinavia – mountainous and rocky, brutally cold; their peoples make me think of the Danes in some ways. And naturally with the time period being Victorian inspired they are not a modern people and so we must take into account that the cultures that have inspired Brennan may be from different time periods.
Brennan has managed to seamlessly weave the fantastical with the real in her worlds and I think it is due to this that her stories are so immersive. I would not have fallen in love with the series as much as I did had I not been blown away by the world she wrote about. I felt as if I were reading a travel piece and that if I were to go into town to my local travel agents I could have booked a flight to Akhia to travel the desert in howling winds and search the lost world of the labyrinth with it’s artifacts to the ancient world.
Or indeed I could buy passage on a ship and sail around the world, exploring the wonders of Keonga and the islands of Rahuahane and Lahana. It is such an immersive experience that you seriously forget that these places are not just a plane ride away.
Now naturally when world building, we writers will consider the type of people that are included in our novels. However, it is very easy to ignore seemingly insignificant points such as where they get their water and how they interact with other groups. Now you may be thinking that it is not relevant to your story. I’m here to tell you that the tiniest little nugget of information can really cement a culture from your story in your reader’s brain.
Now the Lady Trent Memoirs are by and by about adventure and tracking these magnificent beasts that so often grace the page in fantasy. However, in each book you gain an insight into the culture of that environment through the smallest bits of information. Isabella is only within the city in The Tropic of Serpents for a few days before she went off in search of the Swamp-Wyrm in what is known as the Green Hell of Mouleen. BUT in that time we got to understand very well the kind of culture that she was surrounded by. It doesn’t take much to make impressions on your readers. Isabella during her time there begins her period (boys don’t turn away it’s not scary!) and as is their custom, in that culture she has to spend those days within the Agban with the other women who are menstruating. This one little snippet into the lives of Erigans made it so much more real.
In the same way, in Vystrana, the town where Isabella and her team stay during their time they wash in a building similar to a communal steam room which is for a time used by men and other times used by women. Again giving you direct insights into the culture and telling you SO much about how they operate without having to say, ‘and these people do this… blah blah blah’. It’s giving you inside knowledge without breaking the show don’t tell rule. It’s super simple.
Ultimately, I know full well that this means a whole lot more world building for us to do and most of it won’t even make it onto the page. But in all seriousness – if it’s going to make our work THAT much better for ourselves and our audience – isn’t it worth doing?
If you want to get cracking on your world building but don’t know where to start, you can find a detailed World Building Workbook in The Writing Den.