Worldbuilding is weird work. The goal is to create something that seems real to the reader, something with consistent rules, with both breadth and depth. It must be—or at least appear to be—plausible. Sometimes, people can get away with thin worldbuilding. Movies do it all the time. Give the audience just enough information to guess about what is going on, and move on before they can start considering details. Novels can’t just sub in special effects in the same way, but there are plenty of ways to suggest a world without actually building it.
This is trickier in fantasy, especially if the stories involve such mundane concerns as travel, economics, or politics. Or food. If you have characters drinking tea and coffee, it has to come from somewhere. You can handwave a certain amount of that, but the more specific your handwaved details, the greater the chance that you create the kind of snag that trips the reader out of the fiction.
Verisimilitude comes in degrees, as does similarity to the real world. George R.R. Martin has been lauded (sometimes) for making his work resemble European history. He’s made public statements about wanting to avoid the vague medievalisms of older high fantasy. Those claims are questionable. I read a blog post several years ago about just how selectively Martin picked the models for his events, and how messed up Westeros would actually be if the events in the novels actually played out. (Among the problems: massive peasant revolts.) I spent half an hour trying to dig up that specific post without any luck, but many of the same points are made by the Public Medievalist here. It’s great work by some great scholars.
The author of the missing post made a point about worldbuilding that stuck with me: everything in a fantasy world is there by the author’s choice. If you put in rape, or racism, or authoritarian ethnostates…that’s an authorial choice. You can claim verisimilitude, as Martin frequently has, but “verisimilitude” is a choice. As the author, you choose not only what is in the book, but what is in the foreground and what is in the background.
I am quite happy to have sidestepped medievalism questions. (I haven’t been able to write high fantasy stuff for most of the last twenty years, at least outside the context of specific RPGs.) The initial inspiration for Ghosts of the Old City was actually a paper I heard at a musicology conference on theater (musical and otherwise) in early 19th-Century New Orleans. I wanted trains and pistols and such.
This led to a different set of problems and a lot of research. The history of trains. The history of firearms. More importantly, it led me into politics. While they’re only in the background in Ghosts, they’re much more prominent in Spires of Trayan. That novel involves an attempted revolution meant to echo European events from 1848.
That drags you into economics, too, and leads to such fun questions as “what would the Industrial Revolution have looked like without chattel slavery?” Much different! Cotton produced via slavery and colonialism produced the explosive growth in production that, among other things, fueled the development of railroads. British textile mills were, at one time, making so much profit that their owners were having a hard time finding things to invest in. They settled on railroads.
I decided that I didn’t want chattel slavery in my books, and that I didn’t want colonialism to operate the way it did in our actual history. Those were decisions I made as the author. I’m still trying to sort out their consequences.
Part of the way I’m doing that is through reading history. Writers are magpies; we steal from any hopper we can get into. I’m learning things, but there’s a constant undercurrent of “what do I do with this?” and “how can I mess with this?” I’ve found myself drawing maps and writing encyclopedia entries that nobody is likely to see. None of the books involve such extensive travel that the reader will need a map to keep track of things. If I’m filling the history with war and political tumult, though, I need to know where things are. That’s why I’m gradually filling in this map:
The vast majority of the work that I’m doing will only appear around the edges. References to foreign places as a character walks through a market, filling in secondary characters, occasional references to foodstuffs or factories and such. It adds up, though. Those little things are part of what makes a world plausible. The details matter, and it matters that they’re not selected arbitrarily. (Gene Wolfe is a master of this.)
None of this is meant to be a “how to.” There are writers who do awesome things with deep dives into exposition, and others who use a dinner plate to suggest volumes. My tastes tend toward the latter. What’s been most fun for me this summer is approaching history inquisitively and acquisitively, layering choices to create a world that is bigger than my characters, even if it will be smaller than their stories.