Worldbuilding: The Role of Small Details

I was reading Madeleine Bunting’s thoughtful, thought-provoking travel memoir, A Hebridean Journey, earlier today. I’m reading it for two reasons: because I love books that look at landscape and their meanings, and, for setting and cultural research for my work-in-progress.

One chapter is on the island known as Lewis and Harris, and the famous, beautiful 540px-UigChessmen_SelectionOfKingsLewis Chessman. If you don’t know the Lewis Chessmen, they are intricate, oddly beautiful 12th century chess pieces, carved from walrus ivory. Found in 1831 on Lewis, they are now mostly in the British Museum (I was looking at some of them only a couple of weeks ago) and the National Museum of Scotland, plus a few on permanent loan on Lewis.

These chessmen are the model for a xache set in Empire’s Exile (a game I never define, but can be considered to be like chess. It’s played throughout the series.)

‘He opened the skin bag he carried, to take out intricately carved game pieces. They must be part of Irmgard’s treasure, I thought. How did he convince her to let him use them? Cillian took one, turning it in his fingers. “Hálainn[1],” he murmured.’

The purpose of this set was really two-fold: to show Irmgard’s wealth, and to allow my characters to play xache in the setting they were in at the time. I didn’t really mean them to be anything else.

But today, well into to the new book, which is a sequel to Empire’s Exile, I realized I can use them as a tiny bridge between the two books, adding continuity. I won’t say exactly how, because that would give away a little of the plot: suffice it to say that those beautiful walrus-ivory game pieces will end up in Sorley’s hands again, and from him to Cillian.

Repeated details like this, small, and not dwelt-upon, are important in world-building, especially in a series. They make the created world a little more familiar to readers, immersing them a little further into the world, creating a sense of comfort. They can deepen connections between characters and events, and trigger memories in both our characters, making them more human, and our readers.

In my series, xache is not just a game, but a metaphor, and perhaps too the move from the plain xache sets earlier in the series to this intricate set with its own messages about power and influence carved into the stances and dress of the pieces has its own meaning. I still need to think about that, and it’s for a different discussion than one about world-building.

I welcome your thoughts and ideas!


[1] Beautiful

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