I’m around 67,000 words into what I fondly call my Batshit Fantasy Idea™. In theory I’m dong well but I feel I’m not doing well enough as I should be streaking ahead with this as I have practically got all the time in the world, and then some to get this first draft done so I can start re-drafting because oh boy, do I know it needs it. But something was obviously holding me back from completing.


And as I talked to Mark about it and my two closest writing friends, Sarah and Sharon, I knew what it was: my world building wasn’t ringing true. Yes, it’s a fantasy novel, and therefor everything is made up but even so, especially so, your readers won’t believe in the world you’ve created if you don’t believe in it yourself.

I want to have a world that was as rich and diverse as the world we’re living in. I wanted it to be quasi-historical but not medieval, it needed to be earlier set than that, I felt, or if it were to be medieval then not necessarily the Western idealism of medieval. I needed something different, a spark to show me the way.

Still from Ironclad

This spark was handed to me from an unexpected quarter.  I have an eccentric neighbour called Ray.  He’s officially retired from his dayjob – we weren’t ever sure what that was, to be honest – but he is an artist and illustrator.  So what Ray has been doing for most of his adult life is collect gold in some shape or form.  The stories I could tell you about him would read like complete exaggerations but both Mark and I are convinced Ray is part dragon. He hoards this truly precious mineral and collects books showing off collections and oh, let’s not forget about the books on jewellery he also collects.

Ray came round one afternoon for some coffee whilst I was struggling with my world and we got talking about gold, tv-shows and gold jewellery.  Then he insisted on showing me his newest Byzantine coin he’d bought and the next thing I knew he was over with his entire collection of gold coins and I was blown away. Here, in my hand, I was holding coins dating back from the Byzantine era. The sheer magic these small items exuded fascinated me. I spent about an hour poring over them and he happily chatted away about the history of the various emperors depicted and why he decided to exclusively and obsessively collect these coins set in this era specifically.

I sat there listening to him talk about their rich history, the intrigue at their courts, the complete audacity these emperor’s had in ruling a barbaric world (as we modernist now look at it) and I knew that here, this is what I needed my world to be. Complex, rich in a history that’s already gone before. It will be full of intrigue and wars and politics. It will be populated by people who were interesting, strange and above all who felt as real to me as they did to Ray as he spoke about emperors, kings and dastardly deeds like assassinations and coups.

And so, I looked at the ancient world. I started buying in map-books depicting ancient trade routes and cities. Even Ray got involved in this as he is, like me and you, no doubt, fascinated by things others get fascinated by. I bought in some antique map books from the Netherlands. Ray visited London and hit up his speciality bookshops he knew and came back with one of the most glorious mapbooks I’d ever seen. In turn I bought him an out of print book on ancient jewellery, so we were quits. He also hunted around his large book collection and found me a gorgeous atlas containing some great maps. I now have three very large, very heavy atlas books dealing with the antique world. I spent an entire day just looking through them I felt my world sliding into place. I started making notes of pilgrimage routes and of trade routes. I knew what my big cities would be called in my world, the rough outline of the terrain my characters will be travelling through. My gods started peeking at me and I wrote down their names as they came to stay. I know who they are now, I know how they came to be and the dogma their priests are sprouting in their temples.

To be honest this world feels more mine now than before because I can see it in my minds’ eye. It is now no longer heavily influenced by the Far East although there are elements of that left, but it’s evolving into being its very own thing.

I also visited my local Waterstones in Bromley and rummaged around and found books written by people like Tom Holland and Mary Beard that would do fantastically to help put my rulership and world into context within the purview of my fantasy world. Much earlier in my process I’d emptied out the bookshelves in Daunt’s Cheapside when it came to things about the Silk road, and travellers visiting far flung places in a time when travelling was genuinely dangerous and scary and took years rather than days or weeks.

I felt as rich and smug as Smaug. I had all these books, all this knowledge at my fingertips and it was mine to draw on and create and mould into my own world.

I’d been sleeping badly, knowing that my work in progress wasn’t ringing true and lacking somehow. As soon as I resolved on what needed to be done and my new notes were making sense to me and felt 100% right for my world, I slept like a small child who had been running around for 2 days straight high on red sweets.

I think the lesson here is that a. writing is really rewriting, b. research is as important to writing fantasy (or science fiction) as it is to writing historical fiction c. writing is hard but it is also fun and you gotta cut yourself some slack to screw up d. sometimes inspiration comes from holding an ancient coin in the palm of your hand e. never discount the influence of odd quirky neighbours.

Happy writing, mateys!

10 thoughts on “Writing: World Building

  1. Nice piece Liz. I think you hit on a reason why so many fantasy books begin with a map–it is so often the ‘way in’ to a fantasy world. In your case, an historic map triggered so many thoughts about the world you’re writing in, it shows that this is just as helpful for the writer too! Plus, old maps are often such beautiful artefacts in their own right, easy to spend hours studying them.

    Plus, Bromley Waterstones — I know it well 🙂
    (Nice one in Orpington too, but out of town centre)

  2. So interesting! I’m in the middle of world building myself, well, been at it on and off for three years now. I get most of my ideas in dreams, but now I need to thread all this together and flesh it out. And it’s very hard, I’m a storyteller but not a writer. I try to tell most of the story with images as it’s my trade, but it’s not making it any easier. A map would be nice.

    It all started with a short conversation on Facebook. So, yes, inspiration has to come from outside, our job is to act as an antenna and transcribe this. I think it was Keith Richards who said that. Mind you my mum also always says it, but she means the antennae of small insects 😛

  3. Ah, but your art is so crucial to your storytelling! I’ve told you before I beautiful I find what you do. We all come to our art, ultimately, in ways that call to our inner selves.

  4. It was holding that coin, Rich, and thinking about the world they were minted in and I knew I needed more inspiration and yes, so that’s where the maps came in. Maps to me mean a way to orient myself. Even when I wrote my urban fantasy I worked closely using maps of the UK and London specifically and I tried to make sure I visited all the places where the action took place. It had to be grounded in the reality of my world but also be recognisable to my readers. So yes, maps are so important!

  5. Thanks for letting us share your process Liz. I know exactly how you felt as I’ve been ‘toying’ with a fantasy story myself – but definitely medieval based. But something wasn’t feeling true so been trying to immerse myself in maps, castles swords etc. Building in my own head so it will gain its own reality. Lois x

  6. ‘Ray is part dragon…’ now there’s a great plot in itself, if ever I heard one. Nice blog, lady. And so good to know you’re now rooted in the next world, so to speak. I look forward to making its acquaintance when it’s open to visitors. xx

  7. Aww, thanks Ms. Ambrose! <3 Who knows if it will ever see the light of day, but it's teaching me a lot about my own process and how fast things can change.

  8. Oh you’re totally welcome, Lois! I think we just get so stuck in the idea of medieval world fantasy with the western slant that we forget that we can blow that off and do something else entirely OR, just put a completely different slant on it.

  9. How fascinating! I have to confess, that this is the first I read your blog (noticed it on instagram) and I just love how genuine this post sounds. And the piece about the quirky neighbour, obviously. I just moved to the country, let me see with what I can come up in this department :D.

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