How to Build an Unseen World

Last week I announced that my co-written debut novel Jubilant was available for pre-order. That means it’s time to do some hard-core promotion, and apparently blindness sells. So, take a minute and go order your kindle copy Here, then come back and find out how I create worlds without being able to see them, or the one on which I model them (Earth).

Definition:

Worldbuilding: the creation of an entirely new fictional world. Ex. Narnia, Middle Earth, Dune.

Jubilant is a fantasy novel that takes place on the fictional Shallic Sea. This sea and its surrounding continents belong to a world that Galadriel and I have been constructing for as long as we’ve been writing this story. We both have a very bad case of “worldbuilder’s disease,” a compulsory creation of new and intricate details that make the world more realistic.

A massive green snake with eel-like fins coils beneath the waves, staring balefully toward the surface.

Writers often love few things more than to show and tell everyone about their creations, from characters to cosmos. They usually do this through art, pictures of their characters and Pinterest boards of photos that describe their world’s various aesthetics. Sharing, when not done in person, is usually done thorugh visuals, as you’ve seen me sharing illustrations and cover art in previous posts like This one.

The key to good worldbuilding, all the articles say, is to flesh it out as thoroughly as possible. Make it something the reader can imagine experiencing with all five of their senses! This kind of admonition is usually aimed at writers who spend paragraphs describing exquisite landscapes and unique buildings or overly-detailed descriptions of their characters. Most writers have to work to remember to add sounds other than voices, smells and tastes and textures into their worlds.

I have the opposite problem, for obvious reasons. So how can I create a world that characters and readers can see, but I can’t?

Three Ways I Overcome the Sight Barrier in Worldbuilding

1. Language

I’ll admit, it’s a challenge. But not for the reason you might think. See, I don’t have to tell you what something looks like if you’ve already seen it before. All I have to do is tell you what’s present. If I write something like this:

He stumbled on a broken brick in the pavement, putting out a hand to catch himself on the grimy wall beside him.

I don’t need to tell you what broken bricks or grimy walls look like. You’ve seen both. I’ve tripped on the one and leaned on the other. So, I tell you what’s in the scene and you do the work for me. I can do this with smells and sounds and textures and tastes, too, because words allow humans to share memories of common experiences. Common language also allows me to describe things I’ve never encountered, too.

I read. A lot. I read for more than 2 hours every day, between blog posts, wiki articles, and books. I read descriptions of things, stories about how people use objects or buildings, how certain artifacts are made and what can damage them over time. I’m constantly updating my Common Language files in my brain so I can convey more and more meaning to my audiences.

2. Touch, Don’t Tell

My favorite part of any aquarium is, understandably, the Touch Pool, where sea creatures, plants, and rocks are arranged in a shallow ecosystem and left open. Visitors put their hands in cold salt-water and brush gentle fingertips against sea stars and anemones, sand and sea cucumbers of dozens of different varieties. It’s even better when there’s a guide to elaborate on the placards explaining what we’re encountering.

Don’t try this at home, kids, but I sometimes sneakily touch museum artifacts that can handle gentle one-time contact with a human hand without risk of damage. I want to know the size and shape and feel of things, what materials and pains were used, what kind of angles, what manufacturing method flaws I can feel in cracks and nubs. Apparently I got some fairly indulgent looks from museum staff when my husband placed my hand against the barrel of an antebellum ironworks ore-processing component. I avoid doing this when there are children around who might not be as careful when emulating my untoward behavior, but how else am I to enter the world of history?

I love cosplaying, going to living history exhibits to pick the brains of the re-enactors. I learn so much from simply standing in the doorway of a preserved 18th-century fort, about how air moves through logs, and how that changes sound from outside. I’ve gained insights by enjoying the back support of a corset, and nearly cracked my teeth on home-made hard tack.

I envision the world thorugh my hands, then attach language to it that allows my readers to have this same experience. If I describe the cold strip of iron that quickly warms to the touch, you know it’s black without me telling you. My hands become your eyes.

3. Symbolism

A meal is never just a means of consuming sustenance. What we eat, or avoid, when and where we eat, with whom or alone, how fast, out of what kind of dishes all say a lot about us, our lives, or families of origin, our cultures. We can infer cultural and familial significance from where people sit at a table, in what order types of food are eaten, and how the meal is served. These kinds of abstract concepts you don’t need eyes to develop; you need a kitchen!

This summer my co-author and I cooked and ate our way across the six nations bordering the Shallic Sea. We invited friends to join us, to theorize and brainstorm about customary meal blessings, how scraps would be treated, whether or not different subcultures within a nation would listen to the same music or drink the same fruit juices throughout the year.

Every aspect of human life is connected to a hundred others. Choosing to live out one or two for fun produces the symbolism that can represent millions of tiny details about our own culture that we’d never stop to consider, except in fiction. Truly detailed worlds feel like realistic travel experiences in our own world. With, frequently, the delightful addition of magic and dragons.

You can try making a Taxian tea or an Alokite cold summer soup from the recipes we’ve collected here on Galadriel’s blog. Or you can wait a few years for the Shallic Sea cookbook to come out, complete with character anecdotes arranged like your favorite cooking blog!

Models and miniatures can also allow exploration of things that aren’t readily available, or hard to fit into a museum. I have dozens of model ships all over my desk, with their complex rigging and sail plans committed to memory. I also have a couple of thick sheets of paper with tactile lines of puff paint drawn into the rough deck plans to help me choreograph scenes that take place inside these ships. Thanks, Galadriel!

Her other significant worldbuilding innovation came in the form of map-making. Google maps may have sold my day-to-day directional needs, but it can’t help me plot courses through the Fosseni archipelago. To describe chases and shipwrecks, journeys from point of origin to destination, I needed to be able to conceptualize the size and proximity of different landmasses, cities, and other geographical features such as mountains and rivers.

Several lumps of pale clay are arranged in a shallow arc reminiscent of an abstract mountain chain across a brown board.

What you see here is a bunch of clay lumps that Galadriel and I used to represent islands of different sizes. We rearranged them on the board until we found patterns that represented the right type of island chain, one that reflected the geological history of the continental plates beneath the ocean surface, and how those plates would respond to dramatic events like meteors splashing down in them.

And this is just what we’ve come up with for the first book of one world.

I’ve got decades of writing and worldbuilding ahead of me to find new ways to explore the world I live in, and manipulate it into something magical for my own purposes.

Using my hands to envision a world is just my way of life. It’s how I’ve survived and thrived in this one, so it made sense to do the same in my own created worlds. Right about here is where my non-writer friends start gushing about how much thought I put into things, how creative I am, how much effort goes into all of this. Let me say to you, and to my writer friends, that this is how much effort I put into every-day life.

Entering the real world for me requires a LOT of reading, and research, and preparation time. I have a steeper learning curve because I have to enter the world hands-first, and thus can only experience what’s within reach. I learn more slowly, but far more thoroughly. I’ve perfected the art of mental extrapolation because I have to in order to keep up with my sighted friends and colleagues.

You know that old saying about the famous dancer Ginger Rogers, that she did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in heels? In this scenario I’m Ginger, You’re Fred. I do everything you do, but with a handicap. You should be impressed by this, by every person with a disability who’s taking on the challenges of an able-bodied world. But it should also inform the mentality from which you offer help.

Ginger didn’t need Fred’s help to dance at his level, but dancing like that requires a partner. He offered inobtrusive, respectful structure and nudges, communication that let Ginger shine. And in turn, she brought something glamorous and diverse to the stage, the mystery and grace of a talented woman contrasting with an equally talented man. It wouldn’t be nearly as interesting to watch two men in the same clothes dancing the same part, would it?

I won’t turn down help I need. I’m not proud that way. And I’d rather know help is available if I need it rather than have to flounder around in search of it. But the way you offer help betrays what you think of me and others like me. Are you asking me if I need help because you assume I’m lost? I can tell. Or are you lending a hand so I can take my energy off the difficult, mundane details of life and put the same energy you do into creative, academic, and professional contributions to my community?

Do you look at me like I’m incapable of crossing a street safely without your guidance? Or like someone who builds universes out of daydreams?

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