What to leave in, what to leave out

You’d think the term “world-building” would be enough to tell you that it’s a large, complex task. Yet I’m continually taken by surprise by how much there is to settle about my world. A few days ago it occurred to me that migratory birds don’t experience winter in the same way that settled peoples do. That meant that I couldn’t let the first snowfall go by in my book without something that revealed that. Chalk up another two thousand words and two morning commutes’ worth of writing.

The more I work on this novel, the more I realize I have to figure out. The important thing I have to remember about building this world is that I have to know it, but the reader doesn’t necessarily have to see it.

Robin McKinley’s Damar has a drink called malak. What we know about it is that it’s hot, brown, and tastes as good as it smells – which gives it points over coffee – that it has bite, and that people sometimes drink it with milk. C.J. Cherryh has a drink called gfi that her charqacters drink with something called tofi that makes it sweet. It’s also a hot drink and, I’m betting, probably brown.

Neither McKinley nor Cherryh tells us where the breakfast drink comes from, how it’s made, what the supply lines are or even if it’s a bean or a bark or a leaf. They could probably, if asked, tell you something of those things. If it became essential to the story – like a blight destroys all the gfi plants and everyone goes into extreme gfi withdrawal, which sparks a cosmic war – I’m sure they could get very detailed about it. As long as those things don’t matter to the story, though, we don’t really need to hear them.

It’s a great temptation to me to tell everything I know. I’ve spent many years of work, and many hours of reading, getting the familiarity with a culture like Kiar’s that allows me to write the world fairly painlessly. I wouldn’t have spent that time if I didn’t find the study interesting – nay, fascinating – and of course I think that probably almost anyone else would feel the same. Then common sense kicks in and I know that at least some eyes are going to glaze over if I get into too much detail.

I love the details of building my world, and my manuscript currently has notes in it like “Look up Thomas Tusser on bees” just because I want to know, and I want to have those details in place. Until they become necessary, though, I’ll keep them under my hat and not bore the reader to death with them.

This entry was posted in Doing the Work, Fumbling towards competence and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What to leave in, what to leave out

  1. World building is a lot of fun, but you’re right that it takes skill to realize how much detail is necessary and when it’s too much. 🙂

  2. ecreith says:

    A fresh eye helps, too! If it glazes over, you need to cut….

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