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Lazette Gifford,
Margaret McGaffey Fisk,
Assistant Editor

Issue # 56
March/April 2010

Table of Contents

A Year of World Building, Part Two

By Lazette Gifford

Copyright © 2010, Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved

Welcome back to more world building! Once again, we're going to cover more of the basics that people sometimes assume or overlook. This sort of material may not appear in a concrete form in your story, but will add richness to your background so that your characters aren't moving against a hastily sketched in world.

Part Two

In this issue we're going to cover some of the most basic needs of people, especially in group settings. This is only a brief summary of these items, and I hope enough to get you to consider them and look deeper. No matter how much you learn, though, remember to use it sparingly and wisely in your book. If your story is about a swordsman at his first job with the city guard, you're not going to spend time with the farmers outside the walls and go into agronomic details over their planting schedules. It's enough that the author knows and can safely predict harvest and disasters for the crops, and know that will impact both the life and the work of the swordsman.

The dynamics of food and shelter very according to population and cultural dynamics, and are also important conflict areas, especially when there is a shortage of either. These are sources of trouble that can be manipulated in a story to create a new source of trouble -- something that overlays the entire population and adds more trouble when the characters least need it.

4. How are the people housed?

In the middle ages, most people lived with extended families... but since people didn't usually live to be very old, that didn't mean every cottage had pairs of old folks on rockers. Life was not easy, and the care and medications that give people long life today were not available then. Living to be 40 was old in those days.

On the other hand, a fantasy world may have an upper hand in that kind of thing -- but remember that the human body is complex and it's unlikely that just anyone with power is going to be able to do the work.

The important point here is to consider the family structure and what it is going to take to house them. A little fantasy cottage sounds all nice and good, but remember that the farm animals like sheep often shared that space at night and in the winter. There was little privacy.

Many people in the modern world contend with the problem of personal space. Overcrowding does lead to conflict as is obvious in the larger city centers of our world as compared to small communities. Overcrowding within the household is also a problem when limited housing makes it impossible for extended families to split up and acquire new holdings.

A science fiction setting on a ship or station obviously faces limitations of space. This will likely have an immediate impact on culture and laws. A source of conflict in this case could be someone coming late to the scene and who has lived in a far more open settlement.

Aside from the considerations of space and general population density, there are other aspects to matters to keep in mind when thinking about housing and general building. The first is that of building materials. What is available with which to build shelter and how plentiful is it? How difficult is it to work? How long does it take someone to work that material into something useable? How stable is it? How does it stand up to the local weather? Is building a group project? Note that some anthropologists have suggested that civilization exists because groups of people joined together in building things that kept them safe from weather and attack by others. Group building requires cooperation, which requires mutual understanding (language), and consent to mutually beneficial agreements (laws). Building a home may be a single-family experience. However, building defensive works like walls around a town, or building a temple to the local gods requires cooperation. Cooperation sometimes means better, stronger buildings as more people add their power to things that one person -- a family -- might not be able to handle on their own.

Do multiple groups house in the same building? This leads to the shape and structure of the building itself. Are there partitions? Where is the hearth situated? What about bathrooms, latrines or the like? Storage? Is the bedroom also the living room?

Exercise 4:

(This will continue where we left off in the last issue. Use the answers you created from the January/February Issue of Vision to continue world building.)

Advanced cultures can take advantage of far more complex building supplies, shipped in and pre-made from various areas. However, what were the available building supplies to the first people who settle into your story location? Even a space station will have started with something less grandiose, so try to imagine how those first few people lived.

What are the dangers that make building, and perhaps cooperation, important to survival? This can apply to any kind of setting. Get down to the basics and then look at ways those basics might work to create conflict.
5. Where does the food come from?

Your characters sit down to dinner. The servants bring in trays of food. But where does that food come from? Food doesn't just magically appear in the kitchens. The servants go down to the market and buy it, right? But where does it come from before it reaches the market?

In other words, where are your farmlands? If you have a large city, you need a correspondingly large amount of farmland to feed it. You will also need granaries for storing grain crops after the harvest. What about meat products? Venison was often reserved for the royals and cattle were not raised in large numbers because they ate the grain that would otherwise go to the people. Poultry is more easily raised. So are sheep and goats, which can wander over otherwise useless land. But remember, in an age before refrigeration, there were only two ways to deal with meat over a long term. Most meat was dried. And people used a lot of spices to cover the taste of meat that was not as 'fresh' as we would want it. Fish, on the other hand, was fairly common, especially at port towns on both oceans and rivers.

Spices were incredibly expensive for most of history, which made them useful only to the rich, and that again limited the eating of meat to the upper classes.

So what do the lower classes eat? Porridge was popular -- a pot into which things went and cooked for days on end -- mostly vegetables. It was available at all hours, so there often wasn't a 'family meal' as we would understand it, especially since someone living in a little cottage with extended family and animals might not have room for a table.

What types of crops can grow in the area? Does the local government have granaries for storing crops against future problems? This was a not infrequent method to deal with crop failure, and a powerful tool of the ruling class, especially in places like Egypt and Mycenaean Greece. On the other hand, the people in the city of Rome had the first 'fast food' stands. Because most people lived in small apartments with no hearth -- and where fires were very dangerous anyway -- it wasn't uncommon to buy precooked food from a vender and bring it home.

I've seen odd problems with fantasy stories. I've occasionally read stories about elves living in the trees in a gigantic forest. They don't kill animals. They are respectful of nature. So what is it they're eating? They're either photosynthetic elves or else I'm seeing a lot of moss and lichens in their diet. Maybe some tubers -- but it is something to think about when you set up such a society. Every time you create a setting, ask yourself what the characters eat.

In a science fiction world, the problems sometimes become more complex. Food supplies on ships and space stations cannot be inexhaustible. If there are outside sources like ports of call for ships or merchant ships at stations and colonies, what is it they bring? From how far are the items transported, and how much does it cost to ship there? Shipping spices from the east to western cities was incredibly expensive throughout the middle ages. Is it much like that in your science fiction universe?

How safe are alien foods? You don't need to have an alien culture for there to be plants of sorts brought from other worlds. It will pay to learn the basic components of foods that we eat (starches, sugars, etc.) and use them to build alien foods that are edible -- but also look at plants (for instance) that represent poisons to humans and find out what it is in them that is dangerous. You may have a wide field to play with. Take advantage of it.

Exercise # 5

Work out the basics: Where does the food come from? How much is needed to handle the needs of your community? Is anything imported? How 'balanced' is the diet? Are they lacking certain vitamins and apt to certain problems because of it?

In a more modern setting the problems are more often focused around distribution. A break in distribution caused by a disaster or war can create a massive problem for large settlements. A drought, flood, hail storm -- just about any problem in the weather can cause a major problem for a small community. What are the precautions taken in your setting?

How difficult is it for people to get food to the table? How is it cooked? Is cooking a family or community endeavor? Who contributes the items? Who does the work? Who cleans up afterwards? Even in a science fiction, high tech society, it's going to take some work on someone's part to either present or clean up. Robots? People? Think about what each one would require.
6. How do they pay for it?

In fantasy stories, the person often wanders through the market and finds just the right thing and pays a few coppers for it. Sometimes the author even thinks to explain that the coppers came from work like helping with the blacksmith or some darning for others.

Working out a basic coinage is simple. Decide on the metal (or stone or shell... but metal is often best) the coin is going to made from. Let's start with copper. How many pieces of copper equal one silver? How many silver to gold -- or whatever you use for a base. The size of the coin is going to affect how much it is worth. If you take the US coinage (before it was debased with other metals) a small silver dime was worth ten times as much as a larger copper penny. You can use such things in a general to work out your own coinage. It doesn't have to be elaborate.

However, if you have a coin-based economy, who mints the coins? If it is totally local (and it sometimes was the prerogative of a lord to mint coins in his own lands), then how often do foreign coins show up?

Also remember that using coins wasn't always common, and people usually traded in goods. So if you had a blanket and you wanted some apples and a basket, how did you trade for it? Well, you might start by trading the blanket for two baskets, and then trading a basket for the apples. That means you have to be aware of the relative worth of various things. If the blanket is easy to make, then it's not going to be worth much. Maybe you need to trade some eggs and a blanket just to get a single basket. And it might not be the same from day to day. Trading for goods has far more leeway in the system for the relative worth of things. There are no signs, and if the person trading likes you, you might get a better deal than if he doesn't. Again, outsiders might find it harder to get essentials in some towns. If the city is large enough, though, the influx of outsiders with coin might be welcome.

Now what about a science fiction world? How do people living on a station, for instance, handle paying for things? If they are on the station, you can believe that they're going to be working and getting 'credits' for the work. A station or a ship will not have idlers sitting around doing nothing. They can't afford to keep them around. Space, food and even the air they breathe is at a premium.

Payment and finances would likely all be computer controlled in such a case -- somewhat akin to PayPal of today, where funds are dropped into an account and drawn out from there. That also means a very tight control over what is bought by whom. There is likely 'trade' going on as well for a few things that might come in via the ships and crews. Keep track of where the ships come from. A ship coming from one sector will have different things than from another sector -- and there is the basis of trade for the station people. The same, of course, applies to sailing ships in a fantasy or even real world setting.

Exercise 6:

Work out the basic system by which people buy things like food. Trade? Coin? Computer controlled? It need not be elaborate. Just have some idea of how your character acquires the basics of life, even if they are completely controlled and handed out by the government. And where is the conflict? What happens when the economy fails? What happens when supplies are suddenly short and prices rise? What happens when someone new takes over the system and abolishes the old system? What happens in a village market when the new ruler says you can no longer pay taxes in kind, but must pay in coin instead?
Put it all together

Shelter, food, and a way to pay for it -- whether in trade or in coin or credits -- helps not only to define your setting, but also to set a norm that allows the writer to more clearly show when things are not normal. When the expectations of the characters are not met, you have created conflict. Food and shelter provide excellent spots to building tension, but only if you do so logically.

That's it for the second set! There will be more in the next issue of Vision: A Resource for Writers.

Words like winter snowflakes
-- Homer, The Iliad