In one of my previous posts (“Worldbuilding – An Education”) I talked about the value of the worldbuilding hobby for expanding one’s educational goals and accomplishments. This time, I’m going to approach the same topic from the other side–how learning helps your worldbuilding. In particular, I want to share some resources that have been helpful to me in my own practice of the pursuit.
As you know, most of my worldbuilding is done for the purpose of creating settings for my speculative fiction (or, less frequently, for roleplaying games). I’d like to pause for a moment for a brief confession: learning for the purpose of gaining knowledge and tools for worldbuilding is something of a safety net for my productivity. Writing is almost always difficult (sometimes the words come easy, but making them say something worth saying in a way that holds attention is far from automatic) and often frustrating. As much as I enjoy it (and feel called to it), writing is often work.
There are many things that I like to do that are not work. Exercising (though it’s only slightly less difficult than writing–particularly running), reading, building things, watching TV, listening to music, pretending I can draw, and–especially–video games (even though Jane McGonigal would not entirely agree that video games are not work of a sort, and I agree). When writing becomes difficult, the seductive call of things that do not feel like work becomes ever more powerful, and discipline in writing is, for me at least, a difficult thing to maintain as it is. So, when I give in to temptation to mindlessly play video games, find some project around the house to help me procrastinate or otherwise avoid what I feel like I should really be doing, I play an audiobook. That way, I’m at least learning something that will be useful to me when I sit back down to write. A lot of what I have to offer in this post are things I’ve come across during that liminal state of wishing I was writing but lacking the motivation to actually be writing.
Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History
I’ve mentioned Dan Carlin several times in various posts on the blog, but it can’t hurt to bring him up one more time. His Hardcore History series covers many topics throughout human history from the 20th century to the very early historical period. A worldbuilder must be a student of history. Fiction is, in some ways, simply created dramatic history. This is often on the personal level, but the fantasy genre also often thrusts its characters into world-shaking events of epic importance. To do that well, or to create a setting that supports any kind of fantasy story, you need to be able to have a general sense for the flow of history–that is how one event influences and shapes those that follow–and for communicating the feeling of history; that is, giving the reader a sense of what it is to be alive and in the culture and history of the setting.
Dan Carlin is an excellent historian in general I think (though he doesn’t describe himself as such). Where he really shines is in communicating the feeling of history. When you listen to one of Carlin’s series, he takes the time to ask the questions and give the descriptions that invite you to imaginatively and emotionally participate in the events discussed. So, I’d recommend him both for the substance of his histories and for his method of historiography. Carlin gives us an example of how to think about histories–real or fictitious–in ways that bring them to life.
I love the Great Courses series (www.thegreatcourses.com; also available through Audible.com and Amazon). This is partially just because I’d be a perpetual student if I could be. Nevertheless, the breadth and scope of courses offered by The Great Courses company allows you to target specific points in history or culture (or science or politics and many other subjects for that matter) and delve deeply into that subject–for tens of hours.
If you’re not familiar, the Great Courses are essentially recorded undergraduate classes comprised of 30-45 minute lectures prepared and given by some of the foremost professors in the higher education systems of the Western world.
Here are a few courses I’ve personally found useful (your mileage may vary, as they say):
“Buddhism” by Prof. Malcolm David Eckel
“Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World” by Prof. Glenn S. Holland
“Espionage and Covert Operations: A Global History” by Prof. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius
“The Italian Renaissance” by Prof. Kenneth R. Bartlett
“The Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Rise of Nations” by Prof. Andrew C. Fix
“The Late Middle Ages” by Prof. Philip Daileader
“The Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity” by Prof. Kenneth W. Harl
“The Medieval World” by Prof. Dorsey Armstrong
“Medieval Heroines in History and Legend” by Prof. Bonnie Wheeler
“The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World” by Prof. Robert Garland
As a note: I have a master’s degree in medieval and renaissance literature and my B.A. in History also focused on that time span, and yet I always gain something new and fascinating in these courses. Knowledge is funny that way, I guess.
Curiosity Stream is a subscription, on-demand service like Netflix except that it is only for documentaries. Feeling lazy and want to veg while watching TV? Here’s your excuse to do so and still like your making some progress on your worldbuilding.
The best part of Curiosity Stream is the source of many of its documentaries–BBC and Sky from the UK and various subtitled or dubbed documentaries from the rest of Europe. This gives you access to docs you won’t find on Netflix or Amazon Prime (the selections on which I often find disappointing) and gives you a look at topics from other than an American worldview (this, also, is essential for good worldbuilding–your cultures must stand on their own, not as representations, modifications or critiques of your own culture).
To be honest, there are few worldbuilding books that seem worth the investment of time once I’ve gone through them. Some are just too generic and obvious to be helpful; others want you to dive so deeply into things like plate tectonics and the albedo of your planet that (unless you’re writing something where such details are important to setting or story–I’m looking at you, hard sci-fi) you’ll end up wasting hours making calculations that (if you’re like me) probably end up wrong and that you’ll forget and never use anyway. Still, you do need to be able to avoid (or, I suppose, willing to ignore) glaring mistakes in the creation of a world that will distract its visits from the willing suspension of disbelief.
One example–rivers tend to converge; they do not tend to (but on rare occasions do) split into multiple major waterways (with the occasional exception of the river delta, though that’s different, I’d say). Maps or geographic descriptions that do not follow real-world data (and that do not have some sort of in-setting explanation for the variance) will annoy those with the specialized knowledge to point out the error and may even unsettle others who have a sense that something doesn’t add up even if they can’t put their finger on it.
Most of us do not have the time to become intimately familiar and comfortable with such diverse fields as geography, geology, planetary physics, ecology and biology, etc. Having a worldbuilding book that helps manage some of these issues can be a great time-saver (and an interesting read).
I only have two recommendations in this category that I’m really comfortable making:
The Planet Construction Kit, by Mark Rosenfelder. This is a great book for negotiating some of the larger scientific issues if you need to create a whole planet or want your setting to be that detailed.
Holly Lisle’s Create a Culture Clinic. This book outlines many aspects of culture that a worldbuilder might want to define, along with some writing exercises to bring that information into narrative form. I won’t say that this book alone is going to inspire you to create a culture, but it is very good at asking the questions you ought to ask while building a culture.
Both Rosenfelder and Lisle have a number of other books on worldbuilding (and language construction, if you’re into that sort of thing) available, but the two above are the only ones I would say should definitely sit on a worldbuilder’s bookshelf (or in the memory of her Kindle or iPad or whatever).
PBS’s SpaceTime Series
This is a recent discovery for me. It’s a show viewable on YouTube (without any subscription) that tackles advanced physics questions in ways understandable to a lay audience. If you’re into hard-science settings (or at least high-plausibility in your sci-fi), there’s a wealth of information here on how to accurate depict artificial gravity (using centrifugal force at the proper radius and rotation speed to achieve 1G while minimizing the Coriolis effect), the feasibility of various sublight and FTL drives, etc.
Have you, dear readers, found some valuable fonts of knowledge and learning that have helped you in your own worldbuilding? Please share through a comment!