Penny Plain and Tuppence Coloured – or thinking about world building


I’m in the exciting planning stage for a new novel, and it’s one that isn’t set in the contemporary world, but in an alternate, steampunk Londinium of around 1900. I should really be focusing on the revision of the second Shield novel, but in between writing about Shield warriors left on nasty little planets to face up the Maess alone, I’ve been thinking about what my steampunk coffee house novel should be about, and the plot is outlining itself nicely.

But my characters aren’t really living on the historical Earth of 1900, but in a world with steam airships and guns powered by luminiferous aether, and Britain is ruled by an oligarchy of aristocratic Convocation Houses who are constantly jockeying for position. I can’t make any assumptions at all about what the reader knows about this world, because it isn’t the world we live in or for which we have a real historical memory. I have to create it and make it live and breathe. Of course, that applies to Shield too, but I’ve been writing in that universe for so long it’s become second nature to me. I’ve had to think a little harder about the steampunk novel.

George (Game of Thrones) Martin once said that when college students and hippies started hanging up Lord of the Rings posters in the 70s: “It wasn’t the book covers or some artist’s conception of Frodo that went on our walls. It was the map of Middle-earth.”

What they cared about, what touched them the most and fired their imaginations, was the gloriously detailed world Tolkien created for his characters to live in. And dear lord, didn’t Tolkien do it well? He understood so well that world-building is cataloguing that world’s history, geography, languages, religions, economy; its weather, its societies, its peoples; its plants, its animals; its power sources, its industries, what people farm and what they eat and drink. It’s about *telling details* and allowing those details to seep through naturally into the narrative, to let them sink into the background so unobtrusively that the reader doesn’t see the mechanism at work. They only see the final, polished performance.

I don’t think there’d be much disagreement with the idea that good strong characters need history, society, environment, personality, relationships, function, technology, skills, economics, position, emotions, morals, kinks and fetishes…. You name anything that defines you yourself and the characters need something like that too. You have to create a world for your characters that is as defined, as clear, as realistic, as liveable as the one you’re in. Where you set your story, will have a profound impact on the characters you’re writing about. It will shape what they do and even what language they (and you) will be using – everything from oaths to proverbs.

Places shape people. Never forget that.

Obviously, in writing something in 21st century Earth, much of that is understood by the reader without a writer having to spell it all out. But writing in a totally created world, such as my Shield novels or the AU Londinium of 1900, then yes, of course there are hangovers and crossovers from this world (how could there not be?) but I have a huge amount of freer space to work in.  But that means I have to be clear about the world I’m creating—clear about history, society… etc etc and able to let those details colour my story.

Of course, you often can’t spell everything out in their entirety within a single story, but they need to be there, lurking in the background, if a story is to have any sort of verisimilitude at all.  It’s little details that you slip into the narrative that show that this is a believable world.

So, here are some of the things I thought about when I first decided to take my coffee shop idea and transpose it to a different world than ours. I asked myself a few questions to help me understand my new world and decide how much is going to bleed through into descriptions of place, the characters’ behaviour and speech, and the plot.

  • Is this world advanced, technological, pre-technological, agrarian, hunter-gatherer, other?
  • What form of government does it have – democracy, theology, oligarchy, monarchy? Is the leadership elected, heredity, through clans?
  • What’s the social structure like? Classless? Stratified? Nobles and commons?
  • How are things like healthcare provided? Education? Defence? Welfare? Immigration? Employment? Transport? Housing? And all the other issues that make a group of humans a ‘society’?
  • What’s the religion? One or many? Do they believe in an afterlife?
  • What’s the attitude to women, homosexuality, sex generally, race, disability, the elderly?
  • What’s the legal system like? How do they deal with criminal behaviour?
  • Food, Customs, Folklore? Fashion and dress?
  • Languages? Slang, sayings, curses, colloquialisms?
  • Arts? Entertainment? Literature? Festivals?
  • History? Legends and myth?

Half way through this I wrote down ‘STEAMPUNK!!!! and ringed it in red, and that focused the questions. And a moment later the Convocation and Minor Houses were born and I had my political system written out. I have pages of notes now, and pictures and things like system diagrams that will help put the story into a real context.

Can you over do this?  Hell yes.  You don’t want to spend all your time on writing this stuff and never getting a word of your story down. But if you get it right, you can see just how rich this can be and how it can add such depth to your characters and your writing that your reader will find themselves submerged and, most of all, engaged.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the English poet, coined the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief” back in 1817. A lot of writers think that if they get their readers to suspend their disbelief, then they’ve done a good job. I agree. But I don’t think it’s quite good enough. I don’t want to write a world so convincing that I get the reader to suspend disbelief. I want to write a world so convincing that my readers *believe in it*.

There’s a difference. It’s the difference between penny plain and tuppence coloured. Same material, only one version is brighter and shinier.

And that takes some work.

Just as well it’s fun, too.



  1. I’m in the midst of this process with the Martian story I’m working on right now. Just the process of creating a culture’s back-story can lead the writer to a better understanding of the characters being created. For instance, in the midst of writing a history for this group of people, I realized that history itself — anyone’s history: their own, Earth’s — would probably be extraordinarily important to them. I’ve got entire stories and scenes that will likely never appear in any story for this little universe, but will leak slowly into the daily lives of the characters. At the same time, I’ve become very aware of the things that would strike these characters if they were to visit Earth — things like the way the breeze constantly shifts direction when I’m standing on a street-corner, or how direct sunlight would feel to someone who had lived their entire lives in an artificial habitat. It’s forced me to become much more present in the moment.

    Now, on a less serious note: I vote for the Hunter-Gatherer Coffee-shop! You could call it the Grab & Gulp!


    • Grab and Gulp. Snort.

      Your point about history and how it shapes a people is absolutely spot on. I’ve shifted Shield to Albion, a colony of an AU Earth founded after Earth itself went dark. While they have thousands of years of history on Albion behind them, their remembrance (even if warped by time) of Earth is crucial to how they’ve developed. And even more so for Bennet personally, whose background is archaeology.

      I haven’t gone to the point of stories and scenes, but that’s a really intriguing idea. And of course, it’s what Tolkien did. He had millions of words of stories about Middle Earth that he let bleed into the LoTR narrative naturally. I’m thinking of the time they’re in Moria and Gandalf is hesitating about the way to take, Aragorn reassures the anxious hobbits that he is “… more sure of finding his way home than all the cats of Queen Beruthiel.” And it’s just left there. There’s a shared history/myth/legend/folktale there that unites the races and gives a instant of depth to the world, but is just left here because all the characters get the reference and it doesn’t need to be explained. I loved that. I loved how casually Tolkien did it and it helps the reader feel that this is a real world they’re exploring

      That’s what I’d like to emulate!


  2. This is a brilliant post. Have you ever thought about teaching an online workshop? Email me! I’d love to talk about it with you. I think it would be a unique course to offer some of these online webinars.


  3. This post is a wonderful resource. Thank you for setting out so clearly and logically the importance of structured world building (though as you say, I can also see the danger of getting so immersed in that process that the novel never gets written!).


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