Part of the success in world-building is the plausibility. A couple of months ago, we brought up the way that small details can richly layer fantasy fiction world-building. We are certainly not the first to point this aspect out.
In October 2011, K. V. Johansen guest blogged at Adventures in Scifi Publishing, posting her spot-on Five Things You Should Never Do in Epic Fantasy. We have excerpted Johansen’s No. 1. Do not put baled hay into a world that has not had its Industrial Revolution below. We highly encourage our readers to link over to read numbers two through five as well:
2. Don’t throw in obvious gibberish and pretend it’s a language (Especially the part about “Urg”).
3. Don’t use extremely modern slang and glaringly modern words (Especially the part about pants).
4. Don’t use primary-world proper nouns that have become adjectives or metaphoric nouns (Especially the part about turkeys and vandalism. So true, so true).
5. Don’t fail to consider the economic complexities of your world (Especially the part about the complex webs that necessarily tie societies together).
And while some of the utter fun of fantasy is make-believe, following a logical structure will allow for the possibility of suspended disbelief, thus creating a healthy background for the plot. Ms. Johansen:
“Do not put baled hay into a world that has not had its Industrial Revolution. I wrote an article/lecture/rant on avoiding anachronisms in fantasy and historical fiction once, entitled, “Belief is in the Details: Don’t Take the Present for Granted”, and yes, my file-name for it was simply “Bales”. Baled hay is such a lovely symbol of anachronisms caused by failure to consider the forces that drive industrial change. It’s amazing how many medieval fantasies have barns filled with baled hay, even ones written by people who aren’t third-generation urbanites. We do take the present for granted. After all, we live here. And people, particularly urbanites, tend to regard farming as something old-fashioned and unchanging. (We’ll pause for the farmers to stop laughing.) So, what the whole baled-hay problem represents is the greater issue of the Industrial Revolution. If your world is based on a primary-world classical, medieval, or renaissance culture and its technology, you need to be aware of what that means. Human technological development and invention is driven by need and by science, and if the scientific foundation for a particular development isn’t there yet, and there’s no need for the machine because you’ve got twenty slaves or serfs or tenants owing service, or sons and daughters and cousins, to head out to the field with scythes and forks, you’re not going to bale your hay. You’re not going to be drilling oil wells and refining crude oil to get diesel to run your tractor to power your baler to bale your hay. You’re not going to have big iron foundries to make sheet metal to mass-produce your balers to bale your hay. (And don’t forget the internal combustion engine for your tractor.) The modern pick-up baler, by the way, was an invention due to the social changes around the time of the Second World War, when people were leaving the land in droves. Social and technological changes feed off one another. The Victorians had stationary hay-presses to bale hay, not for use on the farm, usually — as they carted it to the barn or farmyard before baling it — but for export by train to the cities. Victorian cities, unlike medieval ones, were full of horses who had to be fed. The ancient Greeks had steam engines, of a sort. They just didn’t need them to do work, so there was no impetus for them ever to be developed beyond an experiment, a toy. Look, it spins — cool. Tell the slave to go draw another jar of water from the well.
“Sure, even without the internal combustion engine or a massive steam tractor some lone inventing engineer could build, piece by piece, a hay-baling machine — people do adapt them for horsepower now — but why would he need to? In the pre-Industrial-Revolution world, and for a couple of centuries after, there are all these people around who aren’t employed as managers or call-centre harassers; they can do the haying. And that’s why it’s good to pause and think about the Industrial Revolution, especially when you’re writing about some aspect of everyday life you tend to take for granted.
“While you’re at it, do a bit of research, read up on the technological and cultural era you’re writing about, and don’t err in the opposite direction by omitting things that don’t seem “primitive” enough to you. Bear in mind that guns were a medieval, not a modern, invention. Even the early Middle Ages, the Dark Ages, were not “primitive”, whatever the Victorians and Monty Python may lead you to believe. The era of the barbarian invasions in Europe, the post-Roman world, was a technologically, culturally, socially, and philosophically complex era, and so was classical Rome, and so was the Bronze Age…”
· End of Excerpt ·
Don’t miss Johansen’s other four things you should never do in epic fantasy, as well as an abundance of great comments, over at Adventures in Scifi Publishing. Or take a look at the summary of Johansen’s latest release, Blackdog.
Long ago, in the days of the first kings in the north, there were seven devils…
And long ago, in the days of the first kings in the north, the seven devils, who had deceived and possessed seven of the greatest wizards of the world, were defeated and bound with the help of the Old Great Gods… And perhaps some of the devils are free in the world, and perhaps some are working to free themselves still…
In a land where gods walk on the hills and goddesses rise from river, lake, and spring, the caravan-guard Holla-Sayan, escaping the bloody conquest of a lakeside town, stops to help an abandoned child and a dying dog. The girl, though, is the incarnation of Attalissa, goddess of Lissavakail, and the dog a shape-changing guardian spirit whose origins have been forgotten. Possessed and nearly driven mad by the Blackdog, Holla-Sayan flees to the desert road, taking the powerless avatar with him.
Necromancy, treachery, massacres, rebellions, and gods dead or lost or mad, follow hard on the their heels. But it is Attalissa herself who may be the Blackdog’s—and Holla-Sayan’s—doom.
- Enjoy an excerpt of Blackdog on K. V. Johansen’s site.
- To order Blackdog, use any of these handy icons:
K. V. Johansen was born in Kingston, Ontario, and is the author of numerous works for children, teens, and adults. She predominantly writes secondary-world fantasy, but is also the author of some science fiction and literary criticism, and of a collection retelling medieval Danish ballads. She lives in New Brunswick, Canada with a moderately wicked dog. Read more at Johansen’s website.