64. In what concerns war, their customs are the following. The Scythian soldier drinks the blood of the first man he overthrows in battle. Whatever number he slays, he cuts off all their heads, and carries them to the king; since he is thus entitled to a share of the booty, whereto he forfeits all claim if he does not produce a head. In order to strip the skull of its covering, he makes a cut round the head above the ears, and, laying hold of the scalp, shakes the skull out; then with the rib of an ox he scrapes the scalp clean of flesh, and softening it by rubbing between the hands, uses it thenceforth as a napkin. The Scyth is proud of these scalps, and hangs them from his bridle-rein; the greater the number of such napkins that a man can show, the more highly is he esteemed among them. Many make themselves cloaks, like the capotes of our peasants, by sewing a quantity of these scalps together. Others flay the right arms of their dead enemies, and make of the skin, which stripped off with the nails hanging to it, a covering for their quivers. Now the skin of a man is thick and glossy, and would in whiteness surpass almost all other hides. Some even flay the entire body of their enemy, and stretching it upon a frame carry it about with them wherever they ride. Such are the Scythian customs with respect to scalps and skins. – Herodotus, The Histories, Book 3 (taken from here)
I have been packing the past few days. At the moment that involves putting books in boxes; as an adjunct to that sorting the various notes I have made in the past few years then secreted on shelves, between pages and other sundry places. It evokes a romantic image all those scattered musings on crinkled paper. A thought that has fetched through my brain, one that drifts through from time to time, is to combine the disparate strands I have written down into a coherent whole. Most of these scraps are not story ideas, they are outlines for secondary worlds or more accurately specific locations within them. Given that I have consistent pre-occupations that’s not such an impossible challenge. In some ways this is an extension of a habit I already have, taking several ideas and trying to make them into a larger whole.
When I was younger, had more time and played more Dungeons & Dragons I engaged in world building as an enjoyable activity in itself. In crudes strokes I would lay down a bit of terrain, the people there, their gods and heroes and shade in their relationship to one another. As fitted the genre I was working in, fantasy dungeon-hackery, it was constructed around the axes of conflict and adventure. It was and remains a great deal of fun but it is pseudo-masturbatory. This does evoke the image of the author hunched over their labours, but frames it somewhat differently.
Secondary world composition can be a self-indulgent activity that can provide framework to inform a consistent setting for the events off a story. A simile I like to deploy (and probably heard elsewhere) is that world-building provides the scaffolding for your story. Character studies and plot diagrams are materials in the same support structure. The trick is to exercise the discipline to remove the props without damaging the structure in place.
When I have used world-building techniques in the past I have found it mostly useful as a reference work to facilitate consistency. My current project involves using naming conventions from a European but not Anglo context. I have a reference document to keep all the names straight, especially useful as I proof-read. It also helps promote continuity within the story, as I know what each character is doing where. Liken it to an artist’s composition sketches. They pre-empt and prompt the finished art but (ideally) they should not be visible.
I don’t think that world-building exercises are exclusive to genre-fiction, though I it might be a peculiar vice of them. Books with pages in the 1000s filled with plodding exposition of the funerary rites of an imagined people is intended as window dressing but just serves to mud up the view. This is an absurdly reductionist idea, but the sometimes retrogrades passions of genre can need reining in. Kill your darlings indeed.
There is an unremarked conceit of literary or mainstream fiction that there is a substantial amount of this kind of composition going on; the evocation of a ‘real’ world within fiction allows can facilitate lazy reproduction but it is possible to re-present the world in such a way as to make us see it anew. Material conditions, psychological horror, or just plain old attention to detail and deployment of familiar themes bring to life a world that exists simultaneously on page and brain. Nowhere is this clearer than in visual media such as film and television; dress departments are providing a shorthand for the world via fashion.
It is also important to draw from sources outside your comfort zone, or try to. I grew up on a steady diet of conventional westernised fantasy; sub-Tolkien stuff with elves, dwarves and men. It is only in recent years that I have expanded from that and looked to other things and, I think no unrelatedly, my thoughts and fiction has developed as well. This isn’t a question of quality, but rather that the particular mechanisms of creativity feed from whatever resources you give them. There is a lot to be said for research, even when composing something fantastical.
I began with a quote lifted from Herodotus on the Scythians. I am currently working my way through the (gorgeous) Landmark edition, having read Xenophon prior to this. There is a definite poetic rhythm to his language; Herodotus was both born into a culture that valued lyrical composition, and the Histories are intended to spoken as much as read. His is a work of non-fiction, one of the earliest to come down to us, that includes the meat and potatoes of world building. Research can provide fodder for imaginary worlds; the most famous fantasies are largely derived from historical mythologies. In many ways culture is reproduction of culture (I might like to revisit this at some point) and we can only talk about the things we are aware of.