Worldbuilding and the Vacation You Plan
For several years, I told myself, my next project will be a fantasy. They were not. Somehow, I always come back around to the here and now, recording my daily anxieties and observations to craft into some type of meaningful message. At best in manuscripts I managed magical realism, still deeply steeped in everyday concerns and conversations I had with myself.
For the past couple of months, I stood in that remembered place again, blank pages, steps paused. Why would that not be the case during the COVID pandemic? We somehow always feel, even when moving, that we are in fact, standing still. Finally, alongside vaccinations, dreams, still mostly imaginary, of seeing my family across the ocean twisted and formed itself into a drive for fantasy realized. I took a step in the form of a question.
“What might be a good ancient or traditional story to build from?”
“What paperwork do I need to come sometime in late summer?”
Two fantasies in one meant I wielded all the power and none, worldbuilding and vacation planning. I just needed to get started.
If you are doing either, planning a vacation to a foreign country or worldbuilding in a novel, you can easily Google what you need, at least superficially. Lists will mix and blend: copy of your passport, magic system, gum to chew on the plane, geography, shampoo bottles less than three ounces, history. All those things can be found, even at the airport, and glossed over from previous reading, in the short term. You ready yourself to sit on the plane or in front of your computer, poised for the unknown hero’s journey. You can jot bullet point notes to indicate who you will meet and where you’ll go. You can put stars by everything you REALLY want to not forget. But, a vacation to visit my family in Israel lasts over two weeks and requires digging a bit deeper, being comfortable with not knowing, and celebrating the ordinary and the extraordinary. Inside empty minutes and unnumbered pages, I waited for open space to transform itself. Encounters that didn’t make sense might or might not resolve until years after the trip and novel would be complete.
I did not expect a life of packing and unpacking to be the experience to inform a fantasy novel. Yet, like the suitcase, worlds were never truly built from scratch, they were only new combinations of reorganized material.
History and Geography- They are not just subjects in school. When worldbuilding you take on the responsibility of becoming aware. What big global or universal events have shaped the world? How are the politics, religions, and philosophies responses to those big events? You might want to make a map. Maybe you don’t have to go that far, but you need to give your readers some idea of the physical distance between locations, and where different places are in relation to each other. Think about your cardinal directions, and make sure your geography is consistent.
· Travel Tip: Do a little research but understand that what you’re using was created from the outside. However, don’t make a list of endless questions either. Don’t assume that because the people you are visiting live somewhere, they’ve paid attention to all the little details you can think to ask about. Be intentional about your observations and take notes. It’s likely others will ask you questions upon your return and it’s nice to have learned something. No matter how many times you’ve been somewhere, it is still easy to get lost. Be responsible for your own awareness and make maps that make sense to you.
Religion/Philosophy and Politics- Like in the real world, religion shapes many of the events that take place in your fictional world. Likewise, different philosophies will motivate the characters’ choices, actions, and lifestyles. You’ll also need to know how politics create conflict, and what trouble they’ll create for your hero.
· Travel Tip: If you want to have a smooth vacation, defer to the locals as experts (that includes your family). If you want bumps, act like what you read on the news makes you the expert to solve their problems.
Conflict- To be clear, we’re not talking about conflicts between individual characters. We’re talking about larger conflicts that happen when different factions collide. How do these conflicts shape your world and affect your plot?
· Travel Tip: See Religion/Philosophy and Politics. When someone’s life is just your trip, your experience, three weeks or three years, is not the same.
Magic and Technology- Soft magic has no defined rules or limitations. In a world with soft magic systems magic users can do whatever the plot needs them to do with their magic. There’s no explanation on how they use magic, where their power comes from, or the limits to their ability.
· Travel Tip: Bring your magic with you, but keep in mind it might not work in a new world without some help or explanation. For example, if you’re staying for over three weeks, pack your own ibuprofen and coffee. But, take note of the technology they have that makes your life easier. If you have the opportunity to travel to the same place more than once, leave some magic there for later.
Culture- Explore the unique people that populate your world. And get creative, because people are the most interesting part of any story. Like religion, you can use existing cultures, but only as inspiration. Be sure to expand on cultures you use as inspiration and create unique aspects.
· Travel Tip: This is the fun part. No matter how long you stay, you’ll always be apart, because you’re still you. That doesn’t mean you can understand and enjoy and connect. Acknowledge and appreciate the creativity of humanity and the people you are visiting specifically. These bits and pieces, like physical bits that may tail home with you, stay. They creep back into your daily actions and immediately transport you into the world where the ones you love live.
While I had planned for my family vacation many times, each time it looked a little different as it built upon the previous layers of knowing. So must the world I build in my novel now. To a certain extent, this brought me comfort. I was perhaps not as much a novice as I had feared. This fantasy would not be my first flight into framed* make believe. Each vacation was a world to build.
The most impactful realization after reading the list above was that so much of this happened during the years and months leading up to the trip, not in the final moments when a particular dress or gift or appliance was nestled inside zippered canvas.
But something else became apparent to me three weeks into my fantasy novel planning. I realized the borrowed elements rooted in preferred realness had a price. The new fantasy novel I picked up from the library contained the same source of magic I planned to use. When someone goes before you and somehow took the trip you thought you planned, which pieces of your experience will be uniquely your story? I sat in my before space, holding someone else's ever after. I had to believe that even in the same blank photo book, perspective, organization and photo subjects themselves meant two travelers and two authors would live and tell the story the same, but different.
One week after my arm was grateful to receive its second shot, my muscle was not sore, but my heart aches instead. Freedom looms. Freedom to go and freedom to stay. Both journeys remained unwritten for me. I could still choose to never go, the same as I could always choose to never stay.
When darkness fell and shuttered green away on the screened in porch, I went inside and flipped on the television. There the news carried images that matched those sent from family to my own phone. Sirens. Blasts. Love wrapped in fear. While I bit my nails, concerned, I would never know which conflict would come next, the characters who would live and die. Real-life explosions and schisms bleed more deeply than cuticle skin and so do real life stories I was using to fill blank pages in my hands.
*Worldbuilding elements credited from the following site https://artofnarrative.com/2020/04/11/world-building-the-10-key-elements/