World-building – Oops!

I’ve been a reader for over 50 years.  I’ve read a lot of good books, and some not so good.  And I’ve heard other writers talk about the craft and about books in general.  From all of that, following are some common missteps in the area of world-building.  (And yes, I’ve been guilty of most of them at one time or another.)  All identifying logos have been removed and serial numbers have been filed off or otherwise obfuscated.

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If I’m going to write in contemporary Earth settings, if I’m using a city for my setting du jour, I’d best know its geography well.  For example:

  • If I’m going to lay a story in Sacramento, California, or Denver, Colorado, or Anchorage, Alaska, I’d better know which sides of the cities have mountains near them, and which mountains they are.  Same story with rivers:  what are they named and where do they run in the city?
  • If I’m writing in New York City, I’d better know which streets are on Manhattan Island and which are in Brooklyn, I’d better know which direction they run, and I’d better know which streets the major landmarks are on.
  • If my character is standing in a certain location in downtown Chicago and looking west, I’d better know which major buildings he’s going to see, and just as importantly, which buildings he won’t see.
  • Ditto for London, and Paris, and Moscow, and Beijing, and Oslo, and Tokyo, etc.

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Animals are not machines.  Yes, an ox or a donkey or a horse can work all day, much as a human can.  However, a hard-working animal needs rest and water and food on a regular basis, just like a hard-working human does.

Although I am not a horse person, I know some, and I am reliably informed that, despite what Hollywood shows us, a horse cannot gallop for hours and hours on end.  Oh, a willing horse might attempt it at the urging of his rider, but if pushed to the limit the horse will drop, exhausted, and will most likely die.  I mean, after all, can you sprint all out for six hours at a time?  Neither can a horse.

And it might surprise you that a horse, traveling at a reasonable pace, doesn’t really travel that much farther than a man over the course of a day.

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As remarked back up the chain somewhere, major characters should not have similar names, especially if they are also very similar characters.  (The thought bears repeating.)  It might be considered a characterization issue, but I’m more of the opinion that it’s one of world-building.  Wherever you pigeonhole it, it is confusing to the reader.  I recently “awoke” in the middle of the novel I’m currently working on and realized I had two major characters named Thomas and five characters (three major) named George or Georg.  I was getting confused; never mind what this was going to do to my prospective readers!  So unless that confusion is something you need for the story, you might find another name for one of them.

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Western European culture is considered by many to be an aberration in the history of culture in the world.  (I’m not too sure but what I don’t agree with them.)  Because of this, we need to be very careful about projecting our 21st century Western cultural mores (political, religious, sexual or otherwise) on earlier periods and places of history.

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Cloth  (This last one may be less an “Oops” moment and more a chunk of “trivial” data that you may find useful.)  I must stipulate that I am not a Clothing Expert.  These are just a few things I’ve picked up along the way, mostly from writing in the 1632 universe.

Pre-industrial societies did not have an abundance of cloth, and what they did have was not for the most part very brightly colored, or at least, not for very long.

  • Without powered spinning machines and powered looms, cloth is very labor intensive to produce and turn into clothing.  (Check into how long it takes a hand weaver to weave a three-inch width of cloth.)  In 1996-7 I saw the exhibit of royal Chinese artifacts that toured the US.  They had a suit of clothing (tunic and trousers) that had been produced for a (short) member of the royal family.  I didn’t think it was all that much to look at, but according to the program notes it took over two man years to produce that suit.
  • Vegetable/biological dyes didn’t produce very rich colors for the most part.  Even when they did (imperial purple, for example), they faded fairly quickly, so most people ended up wearing dull or pastel hues of blue or brown or sometimes red.  Bright or deep/rich hue dyes were usually scarce, and correspondingly expensive.  I’m told by a fabric maven that producing a good black dye that would hold fast was particularly difficult, so it was very expensive.  Only the wealthiest people would wear black.  (Explains all those Renaissance and Baroque era portraits, doesn’t it?)
  • And unless a family was very well off, each member of the family would be fortunate to have two or three suits of clothes.  (Remember the size of pre-industrial families.)
  • Variety was sometimes served by making the clothing modular:  detachable sleeves and collars, combined with different bodices or vests, sashes, belts, etc.
  • In most pre-industrial societies there was probably a good market for used clothing, possibly even removed from corpses before burial.  (Think of the old cleaning lady’s scene in Scrooge’s vision of the future in A Christmas Carol.)
  • This explains a lot about accounts in the Bible and other ancient literature where gifts of clothing were given to a guest or to someone who was favored.  (Joseph’s “coat of many colors” ring a bell?)

Cloth and clothing after the industrialization and mechanization of the cloth industry is a very different topic.  Someone (not me) should do a post on that some time.

About David Carrico

David is a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. He has been writing since 1977, but made his first sale in 2004. Most of his work has been written in Eric Flint's Ring of Fire universe, and has either appeared in The Grantville Gazette electronic magazine ( or in the anthologies Grantville Gazette III, Grantville Gazette IV, Ring of Fire II, Grantville Gazette V, and the forthcoming Grantville Gazette VI and Ring of Fire III.

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