Last week, I posted a rough beginning for a story idea that was inspired by this photograph:
Today’s Savvy Saturday gives you a look into how I go about worldbuilding. All of the following snippets that will be posted were written in a single day of mad creativity, in the order that you see. Anything that is in brackets [like this] was added later for greater ease of reading. Where you see the tag idea: it shows where, as I was thinking, I came up with something specific that I thought could play a potentially important role in a story.
By the end of what is posted here, I was ready to begin thinking about the plot of a story that could happen in this world. This isn’t all the world-building I’ll do, of course – as the snippet from last week shows, there’s a large amount of detailed work that has to be done when you actually start writing scenes. But this was enough to give me an idea of the kind of stories that could be told in this world, some of the basic problems that characters might face, and some of the cultural realities that would define whatever story I happened to want to tell.
The first question I ask whenever I start creating a new culture is,what does the world look like? What is unique about this world that will lead to very specific problems and cultural features? In this case, I ignored the actual architecture of the castle in the picture above, and focused on the idea of multiple peaks where people live, above a sea of clouds…
Setting: The Cloud Sea [Unqapa] is a magical mist cast by a sorcerer upon the land in times long past. It is thick and heavy, halfway between vapor and liquid. If breathed for more than a few minutes, it causes visions, madness, and ultimately death. For a thousand years, the only safe places for humankind have been the high steppes and mountaintops above the cloud layer (Skyland?).
How does this setting impact society?
Travel: Either through flight or through magic. Travel will therefore be very difficult and expensive, leading to small, insular societies. Travelers will be celebrities.
What kind of travel? Two kinds: ride on winged animal [or] sail on ship held up with magic. Ships are slower but larger, used for trade. Idea: levitation spells wear off over time because of the magical corrosive nature of the mist. If a mage travels on your ship he/she can keep it up. If not, you have to have it renewed at each port you arrive at. Means that if you’re becalmed without a mage, you’re dead. (Can’t row through the mist.)
Daily life: Each tiny city-state will have to depend mostly on what it can grow and raise for itself. If disease hits, it will have a devastating impact on the society, since people live relatively close together and can’t get away. Winter is long and summer cool and short, driving a need for heavy clothes and careful tending of plants during the growing season. Also, livestock will need to be carefully watched and kept in enclosures.
If they go into the mist, what would happen? Wildness, lose their fear of man, become dangerous. Humans will therefore need to be on the lookout for animals coming out of the mist – they’ll be an ever-present danger. Idea: animals born in the mist are stronger, faster, smarter than animals born in the Clearlands. Winged animals that are mist-born prey on anything in the sky, including ships and riders of their smaller, tamer cousins.
Politics: Four main city-states, each in distant view of the other three, are allied to (but often dispute with) each other. As a group, they’re called Four Peaks [Chuska-Tunqu]. They are each governed by their own royal family. They have similar goods – timber, goats, vegetables (research: carrots, lettuce, potatoes, onions, garlic, strawberries, blueberries all grow in high altitudes). None has a standing army, since everyone has to farm and tend herds to survive. Each is, at its core, self-sustaining, but given their small size and relative proximity to each other they have also developed unique offerings.
Kingdom 1 [Qayumchi]: Luxury food/plants and Riders. This kingdom’s terrain has more areas of flat land that get good sunlight, so its crops grow better than those in the other three kingdoms. It grows some crops that will not grow elsewhere in Four Peaks. One of these is the special kind of berry that attracts the winged creatures [kiruqi] used by riders. Given its easy supply of these berries, it is also the kingdom that first began taming and training the [kiruqi] that riders use to carry messages among kingdoms. It is the most respected of the four kingdoms.
Kingdom 2 [Jakupacha]: Ship-builders and mages. Hundreds of years ago, this kingdom’s scholars and mages developed a strain of cedar that would be resistant to the mist’s corrosive capabilities and retain levitation spells for longer than other types of wood. While it grows enough food for its people to survive (barely), it thrives on trade. It supplies every good ship in Four Peaks, and most of its captains. It also provides and trains the mages who keep the ships sailing on the mist. It is very secretive about its knowledge to ensure that no one else can build ships or train mages; it likes having a near monopoly on trade. It is the wealthiest of the kingdoms, but hated by the other three.
Kingdom 3 [Tukanchiqu]: Architects, engineers, stone/metal-workers. This kingdom’s peak is craggy and treacherous, forcing its people to learn how to adapt and create clever constructions incorporating the landscape into their buildings. This particular mountain also has deposits of gemstones, gold, and high quality iron, which they forge into good steel. Much of their society (workshops, etc.) is actually inside their mountain. Every available space outside is used for growing what they can, since there is so little usable ground. This kingdom was worst off until trade was established because of its inability to grow enough food for a large population. Even now, the people are used to food rationing and strict monarchial control over resources because necessary goods are so limited. Most people are still poor, but now that there is trade resulting in enough food for some people to not have to farm, the population of skilled craftsmen has grown. (Everyone, however, grows up learning the basics of engineering and metal-crafting, because they have to in order to keep their houses in repair.) Craftsmen are prized by the kingdom – their work brings in goods from outside to let the civilization grow. Some of these tradesmen go to other city-states to live and work there, but they view it as their duty to send much of their income home to support their people, whose hard work and sacrifice has made it possible for them to prosper. Often, a family will sponsor one of their children to receive special training then leave the kingdom, with the promise that it will be an investment to better the entire family.
Kingdom 4 [Kanchadar]: Fighters. Originally, this mountain only grew grass, trees, and some fruits and vegetables; the first dwellers focused on caring for their goats, which were their main source of food and clothing. The presence of this many animals, however, attracted predators. The denizens of this kingdom learned to work together and kill the beasts that attacked them and their herds regularly. They also learned that these mist-dwelling beasts are useful for meat and tools. They learned to fight in the mist, so as to better be able to rescue their herds or not have to give up on their wounded prey if it retreats into the mist. They build up tolerance to it from the time they’re young, and also learn to hold their breath for long periods of time. The best warriors among them can be in the mist for an hour with no permanent effects. When trade began with other kingdoms, this kingdom’s people quickly became known as fearless (and half-mad) warriors perfect for border patrol and other security jobs. These men and women are the shortest-lived of any of the kingdoms, as they would rather die in battle than live on beyond their ability to be useful to their family.
Beyond Chuska-Tunqu are two larger kingdoms, both ancient. One is inhabited by mages, and the other is populated by tribes of warring peoples who have dreams of expansion and tend toward piracy of the mages’ kingdom (easier to steal than to create).
In the lowlands under the mist is all the treasure, resources, and history that have been buried for a thousand years. Including several very powerful artifacts given by ancient mages to kings of old as tokens of favor or payment for resources or bribes to do their bidding.
With this setting above now established, I can now come up with a thousand different story ideas. I could set a story in any of the four kingdoms, or (as shown last week) on a ship sailing between them. I could tell a story about a farmer from Qayumchi who has worked all his life to develop a new more powerful variant of berries to aid in training the kiruqi, only to have his work get stolen by a powerful merchant family. I could then tell of his quest for revenge, recompense, and recognition by the Riders. Alternatively, I could tell about a girl from Kanchadar whose brothers were killed in the mist by a particularly nasty beast, and who has made it her mission to seek it out and kill it, whatever the consequences to her and the village she is supposed to be protecting. I could explore the underground lives of the Tukanchiqu – one who gets cut off from his village by a rockslide and must get back or starve to death, or an engineer who must use his wits to convince a visiting Jakupachan ship that his goods are valuable enough to exchange for food for his village for the winter.
Right now, however, I’m not going to. Instead, I’m going to tell the story of Chaska, a girl from Qayumchi whose dreams of adventure turn to nightmarish reality when she becomes the first person to fall through the Unqapa mist to the land below – and survive.
What else would you expect to see in a new world like this? What other directions in worldbuilding might the inspirational picture have taken you? Brainstorm a few ideas, and post one in the comments below!