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5 Most Overlooked Resources for Worldbuilding Research

When you’re worldbuilding, you want to make the world you’re creating feel both realistic and new. That means you need elements that feel familiar and elements that are unexpected (especially if your story is fantasy or science fiction). Research is useful for the new aspects and absolutely vital for giving an impression of realism. Besides the library and the internet in general (the automatic first thoughts of research), here are 5 resources for worldbuilding research that too many people overlook.

5 Research Resources for Worldbuilding That Writers Overlook (But Shouldn’t)

5. Fiction Novels

No, I am not suggesting you use fiction novels as your primary resource for worldbuilding research; however, looking at multiple novels of the same genre with the same basic setting can be very good for learning what the most common interpretation of that time period is. You don’t necessarily have to follow it, but it is helpful to understand what the average reader is going to be using as baseline (the actual or believable problem).

4. Art

If you’re looking for clothing, weaponry, furniture, architecture, or social norms, art can be pretty revealing, especially of older periods before abstract art became popularized. You can look it up online or support your local art museums and have an enjoyable outing while you do your research. Win-win, right?

3. Plays

Plays written during the time period you’re researching give clues for dialogue, important social changes (news), clothing, weaponry, and humor. Reading them is definitely handy. If you can go see one, however, you will get a much better impression of the story and flow. You may even find yourself inspired by the creative energy generated by live theatre (I would honestly be surprised if you weren’t.).

2. Reenactors/Hobby Historians

Reenactments are attempts to accurately portray a historic event or location. You’ll most commonly see them at famous battle fields, historic locations (forts, castles, etc.), and history-themed festivals, and the place and time they focus on is dependent on the historic event or location in question (the American Civil War, Colonial America, the Old West, the English Renaissance, etc.).

Reenactors are the people who dress up in the historic costumes and, generally, do everything they can to make the reenactment historically accurate. That includes cooking with cast iron on a camp fire, chasing each other with flint-lock rifles, spinning wool, making soap, and more. They have already done tons of research into the everyday lives of their characters, and they did it for fun.

Their enthusiasm for their topic makes them willing, even eager to share it. Believe me, if you ask a reenactor about his/her area of expertise, you will get all the information you need!

1. First-Hand Accounts

Diaries/Journals/Memoirs

Technically, these fall under library research, but I thought they were worth a subheading under first-hand accounts simply because they may not come up in a search for books about a certain time period – because the subject isn’t that period, it’s a person who just happened to live in that period. They may not even be in the same section of the library as the other books about that time (unless they’re first-hand accounts of a war or something).

So if you run into a block, try looking up books about people who lived in the time you’re researching. It may take a bit more effort to pick the information you need out of the story of the person’s life, but you also generally find information you didn’t know to look for.

People Who Lived It

Last, but most definitely not least, people who lived it are my number 1 research resource for worldbuilding that I think writers too frequently overlook. And, yes, I know it’s not possible for all time periods. When it is, however, do not let it slip by, or you will regret it.

For example, I’m working on a YA fantasy novel called Wind Town, which is set on a farm in rural America in the mid 1900s. When I was a few chapters in, I ran into some stumbling blocks in my research. I could find general information about what farming and language was like, but I wasn’t finding the specific details I needed for the story.

That’s when I had an epiphany: my grandparents grew up on a farm in the U.S. in almost exactly the same time period as the story was taking place.By talking to them, I was able to get first-hand accounts of living conditions, language, and more. They were (and continue to be) the absolutely best resource I could want for that story.

Well, those are my 5 most overlooked resources for worldbuilding research. Did any of them surprise you? Are there any I overlooked?

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Crime, Punishment, & Worldbuilding

George Takei Oh My Crime Punishment Worldbuilding

Sorry. I couldn’t resist.

Unless you’re a lawyer, judge, career criminal, or bdsm enthusiast, you probably don’t spend too much time thinking about crime and punishment. And why would you? It’s not something you study in school. It’s more like how we learn social cues – things you pick up over time through stories from family and friends, television and movies, and life experience (although you might try to avoid the last one). Since crime and punishment are integral parts of society’s rules, however, they’re also a key part of worldbuilding – as well as an often-overlooked opportunity.

What is a crime?

I’m not being a smart-aleck (this time). This is a serious question because the answer changes with the culture. Laws are different in different countries and different regions. And all those laws can change over time as the beliefs of the culture change. To really flesh-out your worldbuilding, you’re going to have to answer this question at least to some extent (not to the legalese minutia extent – Heaven forbid!).

Just to show you how the definition of a crime can change and how it can affect the worldbuilding, here are some examples of crimes from stories:

To my knowledge, none of those “crimes” are illegal in the U.S. In fact, laws against them wouldn’t make sense at all in the U.S., and trying to get most of them passed would meet strong opposition. In the context of the stories, however, they make perfect sense.

In addition to the usual worldbuilding ideas, here are some thoughts on how crime and punishment can play a role.

Using Crime & Punishment for Worldbuilding

Emotional Appeal: Make a Culture Likable

For the most part, we like what we know or understand. That goes for laws, too. To make a culture automatically likable, familiar, or even comforting, you can…

  1. Define major crimes the same. Murder, for example.
  2. Scatter in similar minor crimes. Traffic tickets and sound complaints can add humor and give the reader something to empathize with.
  3. Show improvements in laws. I don’t mean crime-less cultures because that’s hard to believe, but there are always unpopular laws and/or punishments. “Fixing” those in your made-up culture wins you automatic points with the people who’re against them (and loses you points with the other side. Just sayin’).
Emotional Unappeal: Make It Dislikable

It works the same in the other direction only this time you can either

  1. Imitate laws your culture finds offensive. Like some of Nazi Germany’s laws, for example.
  2. Reverse your own laws.

So… basically reverse everything under “Make It Likable.” Anything that goes against what your culture considers right will make most people feel instant disgust, anger, or at least dislike. And whether that emotion is directed towards the government or the country as a whole is dependent on whether the majority of the people in the country are shown to approve (or not).

Establish Cultural Values

This can be mixed with either of the emotional appeals. You can make a made-up culture feel a bit familiar by using some similar laws and then use other laws to show the differences in how the culture treats things like…

  • Gender roles: Is it legal for men and women to vote? Who can own property? How easy/hard is it to change genders? Are there more gender options than the traditional 2? (At least 1 sci fi book I can think of has used hemaphroditic and asexual people in a culture.)
  • Race: Are there different races? How are they defined (legally)? (Biology, country, skin color, scale color, birthplace, magic ability, etc.) Are legal rights different for different races?
  • Businesses: Do businesses have legal rights of their own? What kind of regulations are in place.
  • Arts: Are any of the arts illegal? Are they regulated? Are licenses required?

Etc. Anything really. And part of all of them will be answering the question of how much are the rules enforced by law and how much are they enforced by social norms. As a rule, laws usually reflect ideas that are most important to the society (or to whoever’s ruling it/making the laws).

Punishments are also very revealing of cultural values. If a culture is strongly against violence, then the punishments for severe crimes have to be peaceful. If a culture completely hates the mistreatment of women, then any crime in that category should have a really extreme sentence. The same if a culture despises lying. Or toenail polish.

It doesn’t have to make sense in our world – only in the story. Focus on the purpose of the laws:

  • To protect individuals, the society, the culture, etc.
  • To benefit a specific person/interest group: This could be fair or unfair, depending on how the laws were slanted beforehand and who’s in power.
  • To harm a specific person/interest group

Who makes the laws is important to all of that, too, but that’s a different problem.

Anyway, that’s enough to at least put a bug in your ear on the subject. As usual, I’m hoping my blabbering gives you a brilliant idea that leads to a wonderful story for me to read (I do like reading!). I’d also love to hear about any examples you can add – know any stories where the definition of crime has a big influence on the worldbuilding?

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A Writing Prompt for Dreams

I don’t mean the goals kind of dream. This writing prompt is meant for those weird, hazy, wtf dreams that happen in your sleep and fade within hours (if not minutes) of waking. Most of the time, they make no sense – talk about the art of the unexpected! That’s actually one of the best reasons to apply dreams to your writing.

Yes, dream logic is not normal logic. In dreams, you accept stuff that causes bewildered or amused expressions when you wake up. But it’s that very lack of logical flow that makes them useful. It means that there very well may be ideas in them that you would not come up with when awake. Ok, not all of them are good ideas, but many of them could be useful when modified or at least make decent inspiration for writing.

Unfortunately, due to the transient nature of dream memories, this writing prompt requires a bit of footwork. I’m sure you’ve already guessed it – you have to write down or otherwise record your dreams. The sooner after you wake up, the better (you’ll remember more).

I wouldn’t be surprised if many of you do this already or at least keep a notepad next to the bed. Many of the artists I know tend to have ideas as they go to sleep or wake up, and, to keep from missing out on any of them, they write them down at the moment they happen (ideas can be awfully fleeting).

Once you have some dreams written down, read through and hunt for something that seems interesting. Something that you could use to start a story. Here are some examples of things to look for.

  • The goal or the quest: Even when the scenes or plot points of the dream don’t make sense, the overarching goal might (with a bit of adjusting, specifically adding more details since dreams are often vague).
  • Worldbuilding and magic: The reason we consider dreams illogical is that they don’t follow the rules of the real world. If you take one of the events of the dream and make it possible in your fantasy/sci fi/horror world (make it part of the rule system), however, it suddenly makes more sense and may lead you in an intriguing direction.
  • Mood: Dreams are really good at toying with our emotions (well, they do have a direct link to the system). That may mean that certain scenes will have very vivid moods, which can help as inspiration for setting a scene in a written piece.

That should give you a starting point. Since people dream very differently (I’m told some people dream only in black and white, for example), you may come up with all sorts of ideas from your dreams that I wouldn’t (and vice versa). Just remember that you can’t use them if you don’t remember them – so write them down!

Once you do, I bet you’ll have plenty of fodder for your writing. Now, given the personal/assumed revealing nature of dreams, I won’t ask you to tell us about the dreams unless you want to (beware the TMI problem!), but if you find any good uses for them, please share!

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10 Examples of Worldbuilding with Food in Books & Films

Who doesn’t like food? Ok, maybe someone doesn’t, but we all have to eat to live. That means we all have experiences with food (meh or no). That doesn’t mean we have the same experiences with food. What food is available, how much is available, what is common, how it’s eaten, and even who can afford what are all pretty big parts of defining a culture/society/region. That makes including food a powerful worldbuilding tool (and one that can get fans pretty excited).

Here are 10 authors or specific stories that use food for worldbuilding, broken down into 3 tactics – and these are just 10 I could think of off the top of my head.

General Culture Creation

The most basic use of food in any story is to give the reader an impression of the culture of the world. If the foods seem familiar, the world will seem familiar (no matter how fantastic). If the foods are strange and unique, then it emphasizes a difference between the created world and the real world – or between different cultures within the story.

 1. J.R.R. Tolkien

If we go back to The Hobbit, Tolkien introduces Middle Earth with a tea party that’s full of dishes that show a lot of similarities to foods common to Great Britain at the time. This sets a kind of baseline with the Shire as the most normal (the people we are supposed to empathize with most easily). When the travelers eat somewhere else in that book or the later trilogy, the similarities and differences accentuate the varied cultures, and the hobbits’ responses make sense because we already know what they’re used to.

 2. Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire

Set in 1914, the first food shown is whatever greasy monstrosity Cookie slaps into mounds on the trays for the characters, which is undoubtedly 3 of Cookie’s 4 basic food groups: “beans, bacon, whiskey, and lard.” We get the impression that their food on the trip is very basic and disgusting (hence, the mushroom clouds that appear when it’s dumped in the fire).

To contrast this, the characters are later seen eating some sort of Atlantean dish. Whereas Cookie’s food was unidentifiable globs of something, the Atlantean food is fresh enough to be identifiable (you know, if the water creatures weren’t totally made up), and the implements are entirely different (to the point where Milo gives up and uses his hands). Although it’s something that happens very much in the background, it helps show the audience how very different the two cultures are.

 3. Martha Wells’ Raksura Series

The Raksura are flying shapeshifters in a land with many races that are drastically different from one another. Throughout the story and travels of the main character, Moon, food highlights the extreme differences between the many races and their cultures – not only by what they eat (types of bread, fish versus mammal, etc.) but also by how they eat.

The Raksura are omnivores and eat a variety of raw and cooked dishes; however, they sometimes eat their prey without cooking it while in their winged forms (which shows them to be definite predators), and that can alarm other races. While the Raksura don’t eat groundlings (people who don’t fly), the Fell do, so both the foods chosen and eating methods create a lot of tension between the various races and cultures. Add in that some foods are poisonous to certain races and not others, and food takes on a very significant role in the worldbuilding.

 4. Studio Ghibli

Studio Ghibli’s animation is renown for its intricate depictions of foods. In Spirited Away alone, the feast that Chihiro’s parents eat is designed to look decadent and delicious. The dishes come from a variety of Asian cultures, and everything is drawn at a scale that is larger than life – but only for the spirits’ food.

Also, each movie shows different foods or foods from different regions (for the most part), which helps give the audience a feel for where each story takes place.

The Scarcity Technique

When a character or culture is very poor or in an extreme situation, showing a lack of food can convey that situation to the audience very quickly.

 5. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Whether it’s the book or the musical, Oliver! (which have some differences, granted), food plays a major role in both the initial worldbuilding and plot of this story. From the moment of Oliver’s birth, the story starts laying down the atmosphere of scarcity by making it clear that the woman caring for him and the other children preferred to pocket most of the money sent to feed them.

When Oliver moved to the workhouse at age 9, the lack of food became coupled with the quality of the food, for he was… “issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll of Sundays.” These descriptions make us feel sorry for the boys, angry at the adults, and more than willing to believe that the scarcity and quality of the food could drive the boys to take unusual actions (hello, inciting incident). It’s also pretty understandable that Oliver would follow the first person to give him a generous meal. When you don’t have food, getting it becomes a high priority.

 6. Firefly

In the first episode, Kaylee practically has a religious experience (or something) when she gets to eat a strawberry. At dinner, the rest of the crew raves over the food, too. Nothing could have said more clearly to the audience that fresh produce is rare. Also, the packaged food options are mentioned casually throughout the series to establish them as the common food supply: for example, “Genuine “A” grade foodstuffs-protein, vitamins, immunization supplements. One of those will feed a family for a month. Longer if they don’t like their kids too well.” That’s a vivid demonstration of how regular life has changed thanks to space travel, the war, the Alliance, etc.

Additionally, the fact that the main characters on the show don’t seem too driven by a lack of food indicates that they’re at least somewhat successful at their scavenging. That doesn’t, however, stop them from making a profit off of others’ needs for food or from being excited about fresh stuff. So simply by introducing a tasteless/boring-sounding common food that makes fresh produce exciting, Joss Whedon established several different levels of worldbuilding that help make the series feel realistic and unique.

 7. Hogan’s Heroes

Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of this show. Running from 1965-1971, Hogan’s Heroes was a comedy set in a W.W. II prisoner of war camp. As you may have guessed, in order to be a comedy, the series had to be seriously separated from reality. The story revolves around the idea that the prisoners are actually pretending to be captured so that they can run secret missions for the Allies within Germany. To enhance the fantasy of Allied superiority, the prisoners generally eat far better than the guards and use their fine wines, chocolates, crêpe suzette, and so on to bribe the guards, officers, and citizens.

As far as realism goes, this series strays so far into the realm of hyperbole that it could very feasibly offend anyone with actual experience in the war (although, interestingly enough, several of the actors were Europeans who escaped from Nazi-controlled countries). Without the food aspects, however, I’m not sure how well the series would’ve worked. The scarcity that the guards and other German soldiers face  gives the prisoners a level of power that is integral to many (if not most) of the episodes I’ve seen.

 8. The Matrix

The Matrix‘s use of food is another example of how dramatic changes in the world and its cultures requires dramatic changes in the food, as well. With a scarred and environmentally damaged Earth, the rebels’ food is rather like the gruel from Oliver Twist. The bland, disgusting-looking glop served on Morpheus’ ship makes for a stark contrast to what the people plugged into the matrix think that they are eating. That’s a hard transition for people who grew up in the matrix (as evidenced by spoilers) and something that people who were born and raised naturally have never experienced. That alone makes for an interesting contrast in worlds and cultures.

After a Famine, a Fantastical Feast

This technique is commonly used in fantasy stories where the story begins in a fairly realistic world and then somehow transitions to a new, amazing place or world.

 9. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

At the start of this book, Charlie and his family are so poor that “The only meals they could afford were bread and margarine for breakfast, boiled potatoes and cabbage for lunch, and cabbage soup for supper.” Every. Single. Day. Oh, but they got seconds on Sundays.

Now, contrast that with the fantastical candies Charlie gets to see and sample in the Willie Wonka Factory. The difference between the foods makes the candies seem even more exciting. To resist those candies after living off cabbage and potatoes? Charlie definitely earned that prize!

 10. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

With the Dursley’s, Harry experiences a scarcity of everything except abusive language. He is shown to get less food and to be deprived of tasty dishes while Duddley gets them all. Then, he goes to Hogwarts, and, boy, does his life change. Granted the foods of the wizarding world are pretty amazing on their own (the way they move on their own, unexpected and bizarre flavors, plates that fill with whatever you want, etc.), but when we see them through the eyes of poor deprived Harry, they’re much more amazing than seen through, say, Malfoy who’s very much used to it all.

That’s All, Folks!

Well, those are the 10 examples of food in worldbuilding that I could think of off the top of my head. There are tons more (it’s fairly vital in historical fiction, for example). And on the other hand, there are also very successful books that barely talk about food at all. Some genres tend to focus on food more than others.

Like most writing, it depends on whether you like to use food in your stories or whether your story needs it. If you’re trying to create a whole new world or show how different specific people are, however, food is a great way to do that. I mean, if you want your worldbuilding to feel realistic, the people need to eat, right?