Around about this time last week, when it was stinking hot and I was at home with no editing jobs to focus on, I started planning out a new novel – well, new in the sense that I haven’t written any bits of it before, though I’ve been thinking about it for a couple of years now. I know its working title (Virtue of Stone); I know its heroine (Ceveliet Tournasse, not particularly gifted but stubborn and clever); I know the outline of the plot for this book (nope, not sharing), and have the start of an idea for the next in the trilogy; and I have a pretty clear mental image of the setting.
But that’s where it gets complicated, isn’t it? Because ‘an image of the setting’ isn’t quite the same thing as a knowledge of the world this story takes place in, and when we’re talking about secondary-world fantasy it really does help to know your world. And while I know where some of my ideas for this world have come from – the walled city of Carcassonne and its medieval population of heretic Cathars, that fascinating library book about the highly unexpected careers of female rulers in continental Renaissance Europe (not Queens, usually, but highly competent aunts or sisters who served as regents for infant Princes, or Kings away at war), and so on – I don’t yet know the world itself.
Of course, to a certain extent one discovers a world in the process of writing about it. Certainly I did when I was drafting Perception. But that’s about details, not the big picture of how the world of the story is put together and how it works. So in between now and the middle of the year (which is when I’ll start writing), I’m going to have to work on my worldbuilding.
But how does one build a world, exactly?
Oh, there are all sorts of books about the process out there, but those are by and large reverse-engineered from success stories. Most of us who sit down to write about secondary worlds really learn how to build them by reading the books those books are based on: JRR Tolkien, of course; Patricia A McKillip; Terry Pratchett; Georgette Heyer.
Yes, I said Georgette Heyer. The fluffy, formulaic Regency romance novelist…whose fluffy, formulaic Regency romances are still in print almost 100 years after her first novel was published, because they’re just that good. The woman who invented the Regency romance, and the world it takes place in – because even if they don’t have overlapping characters or connected plots, all of Heyer’s Regency romances very recognisably take place in the same world. Its rules are clear, and so is its geography; its vocabulary is extensive and consistent; its character types are recognisable, but flexible enough to vary with the needs of the plot (Heyer herself cheerfully referred to her male romantic leads as ‘Heyer Type As’ and ‘Heyer Type Bs’, and then varied the formula further by adding a handful of charmingly daffy young toffs to the mix). It has all the specific signals necessary to tell us that this story is taking place during the Regency, from references to Beau Brummel and Prinny and his corsets, Gretna Green marriages and characters discussing Jane Austen’s latest (anonymously published, of course) three-volume novel over the tea-tray. And yet, if you look at it alongside works actually written and published during the Regency era, or at history itself…well, there’s not really as much obvious overlap as you’d expect.
That’s because Heyer wasn’t writing historical fiction*. She was creating a fantasy-land – if not a secondary world, then a version of the past that could be escaped into – and she did it by blending history, genre tropes and her own inventions together to create a world with clear rules, a remarkably vivid language of its own (I recall reading somewhere that she once commented that she could tell who’d based their Regencies on her work rather than doing their own research, because they’d invariably replicate some of the slang terms she’d invented along with the things she discovered), and a staggering degree of internal consistency, that she could set any number of different stories moving through. And her stories are different – from the daft antics with unexpected emotional underpinnings of Sprig Muslin to the sly satire of Sylvester, or The Wicked Uncle, to the anti-romance of A Civil Contract, each of her Regencies has something fresh and unique about it**, even the ones that don’t entirely work. Rather like – just for example – the Discworld.
If there’s an heir to Heyer in more recent fantasy literature, it probably would be Pratchett, though he was initially more given to the discover-your-world-as-you-write approach. I like to think he’d have been flattered by the comparison, if only because Heyer was also a complete workhorse when it came to her writing.
Anyway, to get back on topic, I try not to say ‘I can’t’ too much these days, because I don’t want to limit myself, but I have to be honest and say that I’ll never be able to worldbuild like Tolkien. I don’t have the profound depth of understanding about how language and mythology interconnect necessary for that (but then again, neither have many of the people who’ve tried to crib from Tolkien like Regency authors cribbed from Heyer). And to continue being honest, it doesn’t matter if Tolkien’s the gold star for worldbuilding: I don’t actually want to do what he did. But I can rummage around a bit in history, and build out from that to create a story-setting that’s consistent, and vivid, and has options for lots of different kinds of stories. And I like doing that. It’s fun.
So that’s my goal for the next six months, and – when I start writing – for Virtue of Stone. Worldbuild like Georgette Heyer, and then use that theatre to tell a cracking good story.
I’ll let you know how I get on!
*When she tried, it didn’t work nearly as well as the Regencies, in part because the worldbuilding wasn’t as good.
**Except for Cousin Kate. Cousin Kate is just unsalvageable.