A couple of weeks ago, I finally figured out one of the several reasons I’ve been having so much difficulty booting up The New Thing. It’s because for my last eight to ten books, I haven’t had to do any deep worldbuilding, because all of them came with that part ready-made. The Frontier Magic books, the Star Wars middle-grade trilogy, the Regency books – all of them had either plenty of actual or well-developed imaginary history to work from. I had plenty of decisions to make, but the foundation was already there. So I’ve been trying to do what I “always” do, which is to skip straight to the plot and the immediately necessary specifics of the background.
This is complicated by the fact that one of my best friends and story-noodlers is highly character-centered and dislikes having to make up much/any deep background in advance of the story. So her noodling questions have all been focused on the characters and plot (because she knows I do plot), which sometimes hits the “deep worldbuilding” button, but mostly doesn’t.
What I mean by “deep worldbuilding” is all the background, from geography to cultural history, that shapes the place and time the characters are living in. When I’m writing alternate history, I have many libraries’ worth of information to use or choose not to use. I can look up where the rivers and active volcanoes are, or where certain crops originated; I have the Han Dynasty, the Egyptian Pharaohs, and the Greco-Roman Empire that can be assumed with all their real-life consequences, or tinkered with, or eliminated with all those consequences (what if the rulers of the Indian subcontinent had chased Alexander back home and conquered Greece? Or Cleopatra had managed to annex Rome, instead of Rome getting Egypt?). Even if I made the world unrecognizable save for the geography (because, oh, aliens messed around with life on Earth at the end of the Mesozoic Era, so we have civilized dinosaurs instead of us), I’d know where the mountains and rivers were, and what the climate was like in various places, and so on.
But the New Thing isn’t alternate history in any way, shape, or form. Bits of it are modeled on Real Life History, but it’s more like visiting a museum exhibit of Michelangelo’s work and then coming home and trying to build a Cubist version of the Pieta out of cardboard boxes than it is like a mash-up of actual places and events.
Doing a lot of deep worldbuilding in advance is not for every writer, but it helps me. In fact, as has become quite clearly obvious, I need to know a fair amount of it, or I can’t get things to hang together properly at the immediate-backstory stage. That doesn’t mean I do all the deep worldbuilding at once; on the contrary, it develops in fits and starts, forwards and backwards. That is, sometimes I know something (like “this is a coastal city”) that implies a bunch of other things (a harbor, trade, seafood dishes). Other times, I know something (there are three distinct and mutually exclusive types of magic) and it begs a question (how were they discovered, and why do they have more-or-less equal status and emphasis?). The answer to that (three major empires back in their early history, each with a different attitude/philosophy toward What Man Is Allowed To Tamper With) implies some more things (my city must be somewhere that was either not directly influenced by any of the empires, or influenced equally by all of them, there are going to be at least some people who still have very strong opinions about whether each type of magic is good/bad).
I like the idea of a trade crossroads at some point in the middle of my three empires, which fits with the harbor-and-trade part I established earlier, but it might be inconvenient. I’ve already got a three-way magical conflict; do I really want a three-way philosophical and political conflict as well? Even if it ends up being just the historical remnants of the empires that my present-day people have to deal with? On the other hand, can I really avoid it, given what I have so far for background, even if I stick the city far away?
If I make the location somewhere well away from the ancient empires, then it’ll need to have some local resource that’s valuable enough to stimulate trade with all three, but not so valuable that any of the empires would come all the way out there and conquer the place to get it. So not iron or gold, but maybe silk or purple dye or porcelain. That will probably also affect their trade and lifestyle during the period of the story, and possibly the prosperity of the city, depending on whether said trade item is still in demand or has been made obsolete by some new invention or discovery.
There’s also the question of when and how those empires collapsed. Rot from within and barbarians from without, like Rome? War, leading to mutual exhaustion? Plague? Is any of that still a danger? And what’s left of them – a handful of more-or-less equal countries, or some small new places trying to expand into the decaying core of the original empire? I don’t plan on getting into lots of geopolitics in this story, but if my city is a trade center, what’s going on in it will be of interest to the rest of the world, and vice versa. Also, at least one of my characters is from away, so I’ll need to have her place-of-origin developed more than just “up north.”
Then there’s the city government (is it a charter city, like London, with a mayor and aldermen, but still answerable to the king? Or a city-state run by its own prince or council?), what the local factions are (besides my three kinds of mages), and a bunch of cultural stuff, especially cultural stuff revolving around clothes (because my main character is a seamstress).
Which brings in the question of what fabrics and decorations are available, and whether they’re produced locally (they don’t have to be; it’s a trade center, after all), which ones are expensive luxuries and which are the working-class wear, whether or not there are sumptuary laws. I know that unicorn leather is banned, but do they feel the same way about anything else?
I know there are at least some magical creatures in this world – fairies of the small-butterfly sort and unicorns, at minimum – so I need to know whether or not they’re intelligent and/or have their own magic, how different cultures treat them, and how the inevitable conflicts in attitude will get handled in this particular place. Possibly also how they’ll be handled in other places, if I end up with more characters who are From Away or who have traveled widely.
Many of these things, when I get them fully developed, won’t get into the story directly, but they’ll affect it profoundly because the historical and cultural cross-currents affect almost everything in the story. This is particularly frustrating for my story-noodler, because every time another bit of background clunks solidly into place, part of the plot changes, and she’s not used to it because I haven’t done this for the last eight or ten books. Also, because she doesn’t need to do as much of it, or not in advance anyway.