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Worldbuilding from Real Life Without Leaving Home: Travel Guides

I’ve already mentioned here the Comic-Con video I found a few weeks ago where a group of epic fantasy authors discuss everything from overcoming writing anxiety to designing maps. In the conversation, the authors talk a lot about what to read to help you with building rich worlds, but there’s a technique I’ve recently discovered that they didn’t mention and which I’d like to share with you. So here it is, in brief:

If you want your world, or even a corner of it, to have the flavor of someplace you’ve never been, read a good travel guide.

In my own worldbuilding this year, I’ve been making a special effort to avoid the straightforward transposition of existing cultures. Some authors who use this technique do it brilliantly: Guy Gavriel Kay’s built a career on doing minor tweaks to real-world cultures and writing not-quite-historical fiction. Jacqueline Carey’s D’Angeline books also have cultures very similar to those of the real medieval world (in most cases). George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has not-quite-Mongols (though Martin notes that he was inspired by a range of nomadic cultures in developing them), and not-quite-Moors. But I wanted something that felt more original, something that readers couldn’t point to and say “obviously, that’s [England/Japan/India/Italy].”

However, like any good worldbuilder, I knew that I didn’t have to invent everything myself. So instead, I started reading. I read two books on Japanese history and culture; I spent a morning reading up on the armies of ancient empires that ruled over present-day Mali, Congo and South Africa; I have a whole bookshelf full of stuff on comparative religion. That’s all great iceberg work, but it doesn’t do a good job of giving me bits of flavor. Architecture, culture, customs, food… the sorts of things a reader would be interested in learning about. Or, y’know, a tourist.

The idea of using travel guides occurred to me in a bookstore a month or so ago, and so a few weeks back, I checked out two guides from my local library to put the theory to the test. I grabbed what looked interesting from what they happened to have available, and what I ended up with was Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring and Fodor’s Scandinavia. Both were useful; the Lonely Planet one included substantially more cultural stuff, though I’m not sure whether that’s because Southeast Asia requires more cultural explanation than Scandinavia for the guidebook’s presumed reader (a questionable assumption for about a dozen reasons) or because Lonely Planet does better culture in general. I’m planning to do more research (and will post a followup comment when I do). But both books included sections on history, politics, food, cultural taboos, holidays, and the must-see places around the country. All things that you’d want to know about your fictional country just as if it were a real one.

Just for fun, a sample of fun facts I learned from these guidebooks, in no particular order:

  • Traditional Vietnamese puppet theatre is “water puppetry”; it was originally performed in flooded rice paddies with the puppeteers standing in the water.
  • In rural Thailand, you are likely to be awakened by a rooster crowing at any hour of the day or night
  • Some Finnish communities traditionally wash their rugs in the sea
  • Cambodian delicacies include grilled tarantula and cobra wine (wine with a dead snake in it)
  • A seaport in Denmark has a pair of ceramic dogs in almost every front window. Historically, when the dogs were facing each other, it meant that the man of the house was home; when they faced away from each other, it meant he was out at sea.

You get the idea. Details like this are appealing to tourists but can also offer a unique flavor to your fantasy world.

Of course, before incorporating any aspects from a real-life culture into a fantasy culture, you should spend some time thinking about the context in which you’re planning to use the elements. If you borrow too much or too distinctively from a single culture (an example of “distinctive” might be if you decide you want your culture to write with ideograms, something  associated in the real world almost exclusively with Chinese language and culture), you want to make sure you’re not encouraging readers to use perceived real-world stereotypes to draw assumptions about your world, or otherwise demeaning the real-world culture. The difference between learning about other cultures to generate ideas and practicing straightforward cultural appropriation can sometimes be subtle. And if you want to use a single culture as more comprehensive inspiration for your fantasy world, please don’t stop with a guidebook: take Nisi Shawl’s advice from Writing the Other and learn everything you can about the culture, ideally including conversations with people who are cultural natives.

Guidebooks won’t build your world for you, and they shouldn’t be your only resource. But they can be a great starting point to generate ideas, and a fabulous way to fill your head with images, smells, tastes and sounds from outside the cultures you’re familiar with.

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