Thoughts on Worldbuilding, Part I
“Observing the interplay of minute details…within the larger, overall picture, sensing the tension between the revelatory particular and the general condition…the written stories we most trust about life begin to take shape.”Barry Lopez
Worldbuilding. There are a thousand blogs and articles and books on how to worldbuild in fiction. I wouldn’t be adding to them, except I was asked to. For years, my response to the readers and authors who ask me how I created the (apparently) immersive, believable, world of my books has simply (and honestly) been, “I don’t know. I just write.”
But being asked to share my ‘wisdom’ on this subject made me analyse it – or try to. With the serendipity or synchronicity that often, I find, happens, I had started to read Barry Lopez’s last book, Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World, a collection of essays. Lopez is a writer I have returned to over and over; like Annie Dillard and Robert MacFarlane, his relationship with the natural world goes far beyond empiricism. And from the quote above, I began to see a way to explain how my fictional world came into being. At the heart of that creation is the often-given advice: write what you know.
Earlier in the summer I’d begun a stop/start/continue exercise to combat a growing sense of irritation and dissatisfaction with my life. Part of the exercise is to define what is important to you; what you truly care about. I knew that during the pandemic years, I’d lost sight of some of it.
Here’s what that analysis showed me:
As I studied this result, I realized that these are not just the things I care about deeply. These are the things I know and have spent my days on. And as Annie Dillard wrote: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
Write what you know. What do we know better than how we spend our days and our lives?
I took those eight identified foundations of my life, simplified it a bit, and created this slightly wonky Venn diagram:
At the intersection of these six passions, where their interplay of both detail and general weave together, is where, for me, worldbuilding occurs. The world of my books – its ecology, geography, history; even its languages, arose from what I have spent a large part of my time on for over fifty years. Tolkien, the philologist, began with languages and built a world around them. I began with a landscape.
And I always did. Right from my first ‘apprentice novel’, begun when I was seventeen, the major theme of all my work has remained the same: the interrelationship between place and identity: what keeps us there, what drives us—or calls us—from it, how it shapes who we are both in its presence and its absence. In Empire’s Reckoning, the young Gwenna, visiting her mentor Sorley’s boyhood home with him, asks him about what it means to him. (The first-person speaker here is Sorley.)
“This all should have been yours.”
“I gave it to my brother,” I said.
“But you still love it here.” She shook her head in frustration. “That’s not right. More than love, but I don’t know how to say it.”
“Dùthcas.” She looked up at me quizzically. “I can’t translate it,” I said. “Belonging is close. It’s as if I carry this place deep inside me, and I hear it calling to me, always.”
This is the basis, the core of creation of a world for me. The bedrock. Place and culture are—or were—inextricably linked. The knowledge held and expressed in the tundra and taiga of northern Canada and the vast expanse of Australia are not the same, nor is the knowledge needed to navigate life in a big city the same as that needed to live on a ranch fifty miles from the next one. The next step in worldbuilding is showing that knowledge and its attendant skills in context, whether the world in question is real, quasi-real, or entirely fictional.
To be continued….