Of Cats and Dragons

Carol E. Leever Camilla Ochlan

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World Building

Published: Jun 24, 2017 04:06:49 pm
Carol E. Leever
Tormy with saddle

My family frequently asks each other, "What did you do today?"

For a writer that is a bit of a loaded questions. Most of the time (when I've spent the day writing) I just respond vaguely: "Oh, I worked on a story." That's vague enough to encompass writing, researching, plotting, character development, world building, editing and the dozens of other things that go into the process of writing.

Occasionally however I do respond quite literally. When asked the question during a family gathering I responded with: "I spent the day researching the origins of paper bags." Needless to say it went over oddly. After fielding the obvious questions ("You're writing a story about paper bags????" ) -- I tried to explain: I was editing a scene where my main character purchased something from the market, and I needed to put the item somewhere. A paper bag obviously.

But I started to wonder -- did paper bags exist in a pre-industrialized society? This led to a long day of researching not just the origins of paper bags, but of the paper itself, and the glue required to make them. (If you're interested yes, paper bags have been around a long time but they were an artistic product unto themselves until they started being mass produced in 1852.)

"Will anyone reading the story care about the paper bag?" was the next question I was asked. There's another loaded question.

The answer is probably not. But I cared. It bugged me. And it made me think a lot of about the world-building aspects of writing fantasy.

Fantasy writers are often told "it must be easy to write fantasy -- you can just make everything up." Which is true -- except it all still has to make sense. And it also means everything has to be made up -- the culture, the economy, the history, the religion, the language, the science (or magic), the ecology, the technology -- the list is rather endless.

Just figuring how your characters get from point A to point B can require a great deal of research: how far can a giant cat, wearing a saddle and carrying a supply of food and water, travel in a single day? I actually had to figure that out. Did you know that a saddle can weigh between 10-40 lbs depending on the design? And horses can carry around 25% of their total body weight comfortably. So how much does a horse-sized cat weigh? A horse can weigh between 800-2200 lbs, but a tiger while much smaller than a horse can weigh up to 700 lbs. (Don't even get me started on ligers!)

As you can see -- it's not a simple question. None of them are -- but sooner or later when writing your 'made up' story, you're going to have to figure it out.