There’s a world of difference between ‘The northern bandits are attacking’ and ‘The northern bandits are attacking… again.’
— a recent article related to D&D
In fantasy and otherworldly settings, one of the pressures always lurking in the background is the need to convey a cohesive and “real” world. Thought should be given to the culture, the society, the religion or lack thereof. Even though there may never be a need to include it in the story, the writer should have a good sense of the history that shaped the setting. With that preparation, tidbits of information can be sprinkled into the story, giving the sense that the reader is stepping out of this life and into another life just as rich and vibrant as our own.
Without this, the reader may feel dropped into a pocket universe from Doctor Who, a tiny bubble of space and time separated from everything else.
The action of the story should be the most interesting moment in the fictional world’s timeline. However, it can’t be the only one.
Robert Jordan, in my mind, was a master of this sort of world-building. Subtle details pepper The Wheel of Time, like the names of the inns, the titles of various sword-fighting techniques, and the terms different cultures use for key elements.
As a musician, one of my favorite methods Jordan used was the addition of song as an expression of history and culture. Whether by name or by poetic lyrics, Jordan conveyed interesting ideas about the world his characters occupied. That enabled his readers to occupy the world as well.
Thanks to the encouragement of my critique group, I’ve been working on the long-intended rewrite of the story that got me started. (I put a hundred thousand words into the keyboard, then determined there were so many issues I wanted to fix that it would be easier to start over. If that’s not bad enough, I left my reviewer friend hanging on an unfinished sentence in the middle of a fight scene – a crime he will not let me live down.)
Chapter 5 is meant to introduce the main character to an Arcanist who presents a desirable alternative path, and introduce the reader to how “magic” works in the world. It also captures a bit of the background conflict between a harried village struggling to survive without adequate government support and the political powers using the few resources available to aid a separate allied nation to the north.
I planned for the Arcanist to put on a display to lift the spirits of the people (and to some extent, remind them who’s in control). As I prepared to write the chapter, I realized it would be fun to have the Arcanist present a bit of history to explain why precious resources are being “wasted” on that northern nation. And why shouldn’t that be done in song? The guy is already giving a performance.
So I found myself writing a ballad. And it hit me, if I’m going to try to write a poem that has the rhythm of a song, maybe I ought to actually write a song. That ensures it feels right.
But how is it a part of the history and culture? Simple: it needs an interesting title, and perhaps a sense of background. A few centuries ago, many songs (particularly church hymns) were popular tunes rewritten to tell the intended story. The song is a minor key, and the ballad is about a city under siege all winter.
With that in mind, I picture the Arcanist turning to a lute player in the village, asking, “How is your rendition of Bride’s Elegy?” as though that’s a well-known song.
“Middling at best, my Lord,” he’ll respond.
“Sufficient, I’m sure,” the Arcanist answers, and the lute player strums the strings.
Plus, I like that title for a mournful melody.
So here’s the song: a ballad called Through the Winter, sung to the tune of Bride’s Elegy.
Even if no one ever learns all the history that shapes the world I write, it’s worth the effort to incorporate that. A little bit of preparation and imagination goes a long way in achieving the goal: transporting the reader from this world and inviting them into the world in the writer’s mind.