A Final Lesson Learned on the Importance of World Building By Stephen Zimmer
Exploring new worlds, encountering exotic creatures, and journeying across many diverse lands have always been at the center of what draws me towards the various speculative fiction genres, as a writer and reader. For me, the best authors have made things I have never encountered before in this world live and breathe. From Middle Earth to Narnia, to Westeros and the lands of the Hyborian Age, I have adventured alongside several great authors into places that held a vivid, organic reality.
As I travel down the author road, I have sought to make the realms I see in my imagination come to life for my readers in a similar way. The art of world building rests at the core of this effort. It is a very encompassing task, one that demands considerations of many different levels and areas.
From the geography of a land, to its history, populations, religious beliefs, flora and fauna, and much more, the craft of world building brings depth and reality to a story. It is what surrounds the characters, and provides the environments in which the plots germinate and mature to harvest.
The works that eventually became the Fires in Eden Series and the Rising Dawn Saga began near the mid 1990’s. I had two big stories that were burning to get out, one set in a medieval-type world, and the other set in a blend of the modern world and supernatural realms. Over the next few years I worked on what became the initial manuscripts for the first books in each series.
When I was finished, I had a few individuals read them for me, to give me feedback, but it turned out that I was my own hardest critic. The basic plotlines were there, and the characters were largely there, but there was just something missing from the equation. I could not entirely suspend my disbelief, in the way that I immersed into worlds like those found in the works of Robert E. Howard or Glen Cook.
It was then that I realized I had not put enough background effort into doing the things necessary to make my worlds come alive. Rather than feel disgruntled at the thought that I was not ready to try to take these books forward, I found I was eager to do whatever it took to achieve the kind of improvements that would result in a satisfactory manuscript ready to present to an editor or agent for consideration.
Over the next few years, I hurled myself into learning as much as I could in areas entailing medieval societies and cultures, history, myths, lore pertaining to various religions, firearms, and even prototypes of self-sufficient communities, in addition to a great many more areas. I even found myself getting some additional ideas and inspirations as I studied prehistoric fauna, and the structures of various medieval societies ranging from Africa, to Asia, Europe, and other continents. I really enjoyed this process, and learned much about the historical development of numerous societies across the face of our world.
This time, when I did another dedicated pass through my own material, I found I had acquired the elements I needed. Taking a look at the Fires in Eden series, the way in which Saxany came into being from its roots as two older kingdoms now made much more sense, and I could convey that perspective within my story. I had an idea of a process and evolution of a kingdom, having studied the progressions of several others that existed in our world.
A number of things inhabiting Saxany’s woodlands stepped to the fore, to bring action and challenges for several of my principle characters. The burhs, thanes, fyrds, and everything else about the Saxan realm had the right foundations now. It was a realm that was primed to come to life for a reader.
It was the same way for the other lands of Ave, from Avanor to Midragard, and from Kiruva to the Sunlands. These places were suddenly fleshed out, with their own histories, cultures, indigenous flora and fauna, and so much more. They were no longer thinly sketched concepts occupying a map, but rather fully envisioned realms that I could travel through within my mind’s eye.
Having the well-rounded depth in lands that drew inspiration from historical realms in our own world also served to strengthen the development of my more unique races and realms within Ave. Suddenly, I found I was able to think of the right questions to address in developing Trogen culture and the historical elements that factor in so heavily to their decision to serve the Unifier. I now had solutions to light sources for the subterranean Unguhur, as well as ideas on their food sources and the structure of their great city of Oranim. I could understand the things that gave the Elves such an advantage over the Trogens, entailing the animals they tamed and made use of, the geography of their lands, and the kinds of things they built, from fortifications to ships.
Everything, everywhere in Ave now flowed and breathed for me, and I realized that I had tackled the final stage necessary to bring the manuscript to the level it needed to be at in order to take the next step.
The fact is that good world building does not always manifest openly in the actual text of a book, but in the thinking processes of the author as the story is told, during the writing of it. It is often reflected in more subtle ways through the story, bolstering that tale to a more effective and compelling level that works deeper in the mind of the reader.
The background study I engaged in for a few years accompanied me all the way through the new passes through the book, giving me some new ideas for things to incorporate into threads, and spurring new elements for the plot lines. In effect, having acquired a better world building foundation broadened the way I viewed my story, to a degree that bestowed the fantastical and
imaginative with a gritty, much more convincing reality.
Similar effects occurred in my other series, the Rising Dawn Saga, from pondering the way the supernatural realms were structured, to the things involved in a mushrooming police state that clashes with a nascent opposition. The viability of Conrad Rudel’s property, to major conflict elements involving disease and conflicts between nations were suddenly taking on an air of plausibility (even if similar events might be deemed somewhat unlikely in our world by a given reader). I could think of commonalties between myths and legends of different cultures, and find ways to bring them together in my own story, where something of Asian mythology works right alongside something with Sumerian origins.
After learning to appreciate and work on world building elements as much as other areas in writing, the suspension of disbelief was now possible within both series. All the hard work and research undertaken to bring more breadth and depth to the world of Ave and the realms in my Rising Dawn Saga was not just worth it; it was vital.
At last, my readers had places they could immerse into, and take a break from the worries of the moment and other troubles in this world. The importance of world building was, without question, the last major lesson I learned on the road to lifting my manuscripts up to a level where they could be placed before the eyes of an editor for consideration. Now, at the cusp of the release of my sixth novel, I consider that lesson a most valuable one.