If you’ve read or watched Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, you’ll have an inherent understanding of world building.
I would argue that within historical fiction, we’re always building worlds for our readers in order to take them into another time and place – not a fantasy world, but a real world that existed at some earlier point in time.
Let’s begin with a rough definition. I’ve borrowed these questions and examples from self publishing.com – they’re straightforward and will give us a guide for subsequent posts.
What does the world look like? Include things like landscape, weather, terrain, city structures (if there are cities), density, borders, natural resources, rivers, mountains and the like.
Who are the inhabitants? Population, class structure, neighbouring peoples, alliances, origins, dominant tribes, language.
What is the history behind the time of this story? Relevant rulers of the past and present, key events leading up to the story, government structure, historical events of religious or political significance, major environmental disasters, important wars of the past.
What are the rules of this society? Political structure, people of power or influence, rules and norms governing society and individual behaviour, punishments for violating rules, prevailing attitudes towards rules, the role of the military.
What are the religious and social customs? Religious belief system, gods, places of worship, sacred entities and symbols, rituals and customs, religious festivals. Holidays, the world of work, customs, norms of behaviour, gender roles, family structure and significance, ceremonies, marriage customs, morality and immorality, secret societies.
World building for more recent times such as WWII may require less work than for the middle ages or ancient Rome. However, we could argue that a story involving war still requires the author to build a military world for readers.
I’ll explore these questions in more depth and may add a few more critical questions as we go along. Would love to hear your thoughts on the topic as we go along.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.