Writers who set their stories in the real world, whether modern or historical, have a double advantage over those of us who alter reality/history to suit our own ends, or who make up our own versions from whole cloth. The first advantage is that they can look up whatever details they need – architecture, dress, maps, culture – and whatever they find, they don’t have to worry about someone saying it couldn’t possibly be like that. People can argue with their sources, but not with the fact that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005.
The other big advantage they have is that they don’t seem to get as many fans asking about obscure worldbuilding points, some of which aren’t even in the story. I’ve never heard of someone coming up to a writer who has written a series of historical novels set in New York City during the American Revolution and asking “So, I’ve been wondering what was happening in Australia while all this was going on.” And if somebody did ask, I know of nobody who would think the writer out of line if he answered, “How should I know? Google is your friend…”
But when you’ve invented a world, readers do this sort of thing all the time. I still remember the fan letter I got from a gentleman who’d read The Seven Towers that went something like this:
“Dear Ms. Wrede: In your book, you mention the Three Greater Obligations and the Twelve Lesser Obligations. I can only find nine Lesser Obligations in the text. What are the other three? Sincerely yours,”
For those of you who haven’t read the book, the greater and lesser obligations were part of the culture of a secondary character, a foreigner who was the only member of his group who ever came onstage during the story (though we heard a lot about them). Since only the one character was actually in the book, I didn’t bother making up the culture in detail; when he brought up the Three Greater Obligations, I knew what they were because they were important to the situation, but when he mentioned the Twelve Lesser Obligations, I figured that was enough to cover anything that was likely to come up in the course of the book, and I didn’t actually need to have a list.
So when I got that fan letter, I didn’t have an answer. Which tends to surprise and annoy the sort of fan who so earnestly asks questions like that. For some reason, they’re positive that I have several sets of virtual encyclopedias, one for each of the imaginary worlds I’ve created, that cover everything anyone could possibly want to know about their history, geography, cultures, magic, and so on.
It doesn’t work that way for most of us. Yes, every so often you get a curve-wrecker like J.R.R. Tolkein who spent forty years inventing everything from languages to poetry for his imaginary world – but those people are nearly always doing it for fun. As a hobby. Because they like making up every possible detail of their imaginary world.
Most working writers don’t have that much time, not when we’re trying to make a living as writers rather than Oxford Dons, and especially not when we’re working with multiple different imaginary places. What we do instead is what I call the soap-bubble technique – we know a small number of key details, the sort that imply a lot of other interesting possibilities, and we scatter them through the story instead of giving them all to the reader at once. Like taking a drop of soapy water and blowing it full of air, this gives the illusion of a sizeable object much larger than the actual material that makes it up. There isn’t anything in the middle but air, but it doesn’t matter because the bubble is so pretty and it doesn’t actually have to last any longer than the story it’s background for.
Furthermore, some of the best and most important details in my books turn out to be things I made up on the fly. The interesting contradiction here is that I need to have put considerable thought into the background before I’m able to do that sort of on-the-fly invention…but most of it doesn’t have to be at the detail level. I need a structure that things have to fit into, so that everything I come up with stays consistent, but I don’t need all twelve of the Lesser Obligations, especially when I don’t plan on mentioning any of them specifically in the text.
Sometimes I do work out unnecessary extras, just for fun. When I was writing The Raven Ring, I worked out the entire fortunetelling deck of cards and their meanings, just because, even though I only needed ten or so cards in the actual text. I had an obscure secret history behind them, too, though none of it ever got into that book. But that was just because I was having fun, not because I had to know all that in order to write the book.
There’s one more factor involved in not-making-things-up besides the time and energy: the problem of being trapped, of needing something to be X in order for the plot to work, but it can’t be X because you’ve already made up Y. Not “you’ve already put Y in the book.” If the background gets too full of specific, interlocking, irrelevant detail, it can cripple one’s ability to suddenly see a completely different possibility…because the new thing isn’t a possibility; that part of the background is already filled in.
It’s a delicate balancing act. Every writer has a different threshold for how much detail is enough, how much is too much, how much has to be done in advance, how much can be made up as needed. Sometimes it changes from book to book. The point is, the threshold can change, because all a fantasy writer really has to worry about is internal consistency. True, most of us set our stories in worlds that have some vague connection with reality – that have horses and rabbits and laws of physics that are mostly like ours (except for the magic part). Where there’s overlap, one does research. But there’s always the possibility of something different – there don’t have to be horses or rabbits or the laws of physics as we know them.
And possibility is, for me, what writing in general and fantasy in particular are all about.