History, Worldbuilding, and Bricolage






Several people linked to Lev Grossman’s list of twenty things he’d like to see in fantasy novels.

Discussion of lists like this can slow to a halt when writers pop up, issuing long comments about how in their novel, all those things are represented. But even if the discussion isn’t stalled out by writerly self-promotion, someone else is bound to turn up and say, “Okay, fine. But I don’t read fantasy to read about people peeing, or to see a description of every bit of food cut, chewed, and swallowed. And I certainly don’t turn to fantasy to find the characters picking up a newspaper to debate the economy. I read to get away from the mundane details of modern life.”

Here’s what I think is going on.

When I listen to discussions of favorite books, whether fantasy or historical novel, I keep hearing over and over that the memorable ones have convincing worlds. If it’s fantasy, it’s believable worldbuilding, and if history, it gets the details right.

Getting the details right can be more complicated than it seems. So much depends on the reader’s knowledge of the period, in the case of a historical novel. One person’s “true-to-the-period” rave is another’s “I couldn’t get past all the errors on page one!” rant.

Totting up errors can be as boring as “But in MY book, I . . .” unless one likes oneupsmanship as a spectator sport. No writer can be an expert on any period outside of life experience, and of course fantasy is fantasy. We don’t get to live long enough to master everything.

And even if you have studied your period and place or built your world for twenty years, artistic license is going to call for compromises. A book set in ninth century Britain written in the language of the time is going to readable to a couple hundred scholars, so the writer writes in modern prose for the same reason that films made by Los Angeles filmmakers who’ve lived and worked here all their lives are still going to depict the hero or villain driving up and parking right in front of the building they need to get to, omitting the tedium and frustration of circling around forever to find a parking garage that isn’t full, then driving around and around to the top, then pulling out handfuls of change to get twelve bucks’ worth of time (which is what, about an hour?), after which they toil hither and yon to find the elevator, from which, at last, they can hike to their destination.

By then, the only audience would be the crickets.

Unless story is happening during this kerfuffle, the filmmaker cuts it all out, and inserts a totally unrealistic detail as far as twenty million Angelenos are concerned. Most of the audience didn’t pay to see a faithful depiction of the exasperating tedium they have to deal with far too often; they came to be entertained by a story, and so they accept the hero parking right in front of the Justice Building and running straight inside, in order to get on with the story. However, there are inevitably the one or two people, maybe someone who works at the Justice Building, who are totally thrown out of the film because they know that it is impossible to park there. “I couldn’t watch that film–totally unrealistic,” they say, and everyone else shrugs.

There are countless layers to historical or worldbuilding verisimilitude, perception of which not only depends on the observations and experience of the reader, but on the writer-reader contract, that is, what the reader is willing to accept.

Some writers seem to think that shoveling constant references to filth and rotting teeth and lice into historical novels will convey an atmosphere of verisimilitude, and no doubt for the reader who expects those things, it will.

But someone else who’s walked through villages in Holland and seen how scrupulously clean they are (and how old paintings show that little has changed in that regard), or who’s read about country life in some biology-oriented magazine and discovered that all the skeletons dug up had a full set of healthy teeth unmarred by sugar, or who knows the history of lice, will be tossed right out of the book.

There were villages where filth abounded. Cities, too. Reading memoirs of Paris around the time of the Revolution furnishes stomach-turning observations. Or the chapter in Smollett’s Humphrey Clinker that describes, in revolting detail, just how unsanitary the baths at Bath really were. And there were places where the skeletons demonstrate that teeth were usually gone by the individuals’ twenties, etc etc.

The difference is in the detail, or what I think of as the bricolage theory. Bricolage is an artistic term taken from the French for tinkering, or building by messing around with materials at hand. Arguably, the more one knows about a time, as well as about life, the more one has to tinker with.

Just last week, someone on LiveJournal was talking about a relative who said, on moving to a small, sleepy town, “A year after moving there I stopped polishing my shoes.” I think of that as a bricolage detail—not only does the quote give a specific image of that town, but it also says something about the person who uttered it.

Back to the lice. Anyone who’s read, say, Grimmelshausen’s Simplicius Simplicissimus will come across the proper etiquette for picking lice off your captain’s wife. Such a realistic detail paints a clear picture not only of the characters, but of life in Germany during the long slaughter of the Thirty Years’ War.

Bricolage is not just random details, but the details that make the world seem lived in. If the woman (who may or may not be a princess or witch) selling her basket of vinegar-soaked kippers on the street clacks along the slimy cobblestones in her pattens, refusing to give passers-by the wall, our doughty heroes might surmise that she isn’t a humbly born street seller. If one of the guards sews gold braid on their tunics for his fellows, he’s the one who used to be a tailor until the roundup that took away his town’s young men—which in turn gives hints about the country’s economy and governmental reach.

The bricolage theory is not just about reading enough to know the exact maps of a given place at a given time, but how people lived in their world, how they interpreted it to themselves, and how they regarded others who didn’t think like them—I don’t mean just people from other cultures, but between individuals, between families, generations, fellow citizens, governors and the governed, those inside cultural norms (including the law) and outside. And it’s demonstrated in the details.

Sherwood Smith’s BVC ebooks (which DO deal with the Pee Dilemma, and no, that won’t make a single reader leap to grab them!)



History, Worldbuilding, and Bricolage — 41 Comments

  1. The telling detail or choosing which details to tell is where the art resides. Only within the last few years have I learned how important and powerful good world building is. So many books have characters and stories that should be just fine, but the environment in which it all plays out is implausible or contradictory. Such things nag at the reader and can spoil the experience.

    • I agree, though I think that this might be more of a problem for the experienced reader. Have you reread a childhood or young adult favorite, just to put it down and wonder how you never noticed the sketchiness of the setting, etc?

    • Or you get the sense that the world is like the magic carpet in the Oz books: unrolling in front of the characters and rolling up behind it–only enough present for the action to happen. I hate that!

  2. I have. The experience can be very enlightening. In a few I see more than I did at the time. In others I realize I brought more to the story than was actually there!

  3. Well, my list is not about what I do or do not have in my novel, but about that list.

    1. If you can pull this off without its seeming like the hand of the author, more power to you. I doubt it. In real life, we have the advantage of it really happened, but in fiction by definition it didn’t.

    3. The very word “novel” means “new” and for good reason. Throughout most of history, no one read novels. Also, paper is expensive, hand-writing out the novel even more expensive, and literacy by no means guaranteed. (Listen to minstrels’ lays more often, yes, novels not necessarily.)

    4. How many people throughout history have regarded the economic interactions of a nation as a unified thing — and if so, how did they get the information to manage to worry about it?

    5. ???? I see plenty of that in many fantasy novels.

    6. The past was a lot more racially homogenous as than he seems to think; it’s not a flaw to not make your racial composition just like the United States of America. (You could, of course, introduce a pasty-skinned person from the Ice Lands up north.)

    10. And die young. People didn’t just drink alcohol for giggles. They drank it because it’s an antiseptic that makes it less like for you to die of water-bourne diseases.

    13. In a plot-relevant manner?

    18. In a plot-relevant manner?

    19. What’s the point?

    20. He seems to overestimate the popularity of unhappy endings.

  4. What an excellent post! I love this, and I agree with what you say (and want to subscribe to your newsletter!), *and*, I love the examples you give. In fact, now I want to read the stories that ersatz fishmonger and that tailor-gone-for-a-soldier appear in.

    I’m a fan of the casual side reference to things, things that the characters clearly take for granted and which need no explanation, and which I can more or less intuit or understand from context, but which I’m not expecting or don’t know about–these things add depth for me, both in historical novels and fantasy novels.

    • I’m a fan of those things, too. The intellectual puzzle game can be fun, but again I think it’s mostly fun for those of us who have been reading a long time, and have had a significant amount of life experience. The author who can dazzle both younger readers as well as older with the bricolage details is rare and brilliant.

  5. Do know why my great-grandfather’s farm was so scrupulously clean? Because he was in the trenches of WWI, and any smell of any kind of rot or filth gave him flashbacks. I never see that in old soldier characters, and I’d like to. (This should not convey in any one author a sense of obligation etc. etc. Just a detail thrown out in case it helps anybody.)

    • That is an excellent detail. You mentioned another gorgeous piece of bricolage in another discussion, where you talked about a nickname kids used that turned out to have unexpected linguistic and historical connotations.

  6. Wow, what an odd list. Especially the bit about chafing. One gets the decided feeling that Mr. Grossman hasn’t actually had to deal with the joys of skin infections after chafing… nor is he reading novels written by folks who actually ride, since I know Judith Tarr and Elizabeth Moon gloss over chafing issues the exact way you’d *wish* modern bicyclists learning about it for the first time would. If I suddenly got transported to a medievaloid fantasy world, antibiotic ointment would be high on my list of modern luxuries I’d miss.

    The drink non-alcoholic stuff I can sort of understand… Tea. Tisanes. All the other fun drinks that come from boiled water. There really were strong cultural differences and influences for whether you fermented stuff for safe drinking water or boiled it (or called for both with glad cries). The part that always gets *me* is related. I grew up in Pennsylvania, so kids are taught to never ever drink from random water sources. You never know which ones are contaminated with mine runoff like acids or heavy metals, or farm runoff whether fertilizers or bacterial. Water purification plants are a big deal. So are septic systems, composting toilets and other technologies that reduce the load on the water supply. Quite a few authors (not all thank god) don’t seem to think about the whole water cycle and how it’s going to vary.

    Most of the rest of his list suggests he’s been reading a rather odd assortment of books since they appear to have no poor or female characters.

      • I actually did deal with chafing issues in The Hall of the Mountain King. Switching from breeches to kilt for macho reasons. With resultant hellacious Ow.

        The throwaway detail is key, for most of worldbuilding. If we think about what we take for granted in daily life and writing, and ask ourselves what our characters would think of in that same way in their own not-here-and-now setting, it’s a great help.

        It all comes down to Turtledove’s Law: Be aware of/research/worldbuild 500 details. Pick the three that are key to the scene and setting. The other 497 will then manage to be implied, and readers will be satisfied.

  7. What a great post. A friend of mine used to say that one should take research and rub it into the grain of the story so that it left a warm patina of there over the setting. I try to remember this when the enthusiasm of O! Look! Shiny factoid! starts to overwhelm me.

      • Well, they’re shiny. And they have the sparkly “look, I’ll bet no one else knows this! I can be smart! Whee!” glitter to them which is sometimes irresistible, sort of the My Little Pony of worldbuilding. I always think I’ve weeded out the shiny factoids in my historical world-building, and then in second draft there are still more which have popped up, mushroom like, in the damp.

  8. Lists are a weird, if very internetty, way to make an argument. But I think the take-away is a plea for more crunchy, flavorful details in fiction. I like the bricolage approach (although I had to have Mr Wikipedia explain it to me for a while before I got it). The detail that makes the right impact is the right detail… but, as you point out, the same detail will seem right and wrong to different readers. Elfland for some is spelled “Poughkeepsie”, while for some it’s any land that has elves.

    • So true. As someone said over at my blog, where I linked this, some readers are going to be bothered by how Rivendell could exist must less support itself. But for many readers, that didn’t matter any more than the fact that it seemed these centuries-old elves lived largely on air. Tolkien carefully chose details and finessed other details, creating a distinctive whole.

    • And of course comparing Elfland to Poughkeepsie only works for Americans anyway, since to Non-Americans “Poughkeepsie” sounds exactly like the sort of town name you’d expect to find in a fantasy novel. However, if you’d swap out Poughkeepsie for Bielefeld or Kassel or Wanne-Eickel, then it would work at least for me.

      • Good point. (Especially as Poughkeepsie is a beautiful town to one used to the bland wasteland of Orange County, California . . . which would be someone else’s fantasyland, no doubt)

  9. Grossman’s list is a mixed bag. Some are palpable hits, but others – the absence of peeing, forgetting what you were going to say, sneezing at an awkward moment – are characteristics of novels in general (yes, I can think of exceptions, but they are exceptions), rather than fantasies in particular. (Also, 3 is kind of nonsensical, since he seems to be thinking of novels set in secondary worlds where the novels of Robert Jordan wouldn’t be easily available.)

    But my favourite is number 12 (“Hear ominous noises that then turn out to be nothing”), since it allows me to link to this sketch….

  10. The problem is that, since you cannot datadump everything into the novel, how to pick out the bits that are worth putting effort into for maximal effect. My idea is that there are several areas that are easy ‘windows’ into a created world. The first among these of course is food: what is lembas like? (And did it involve butter? I bet it did, because everything delicious involves butter.) What would Lord Peter Wimsey order in this restaurant? Did James Bond actually declare that hotel room service is the best way to get a decent meal? (He did, which shows what hotels were like in his time!!)
    Another would be money. What do people live on? How do they earn their daily bread? Upon what is the nation’s economy based?

  11. Excellent post as always, Sherwood. My reaction to Grossman’s post is that he is really not reading very widely, but that seems to be par for the course for these guys.

  12. There’s a lot about the list that’s off, e.g. I can think offhand of several SFF novels where characters indeed pee (e.g. George R.R. Martin and Simon Green have characters who pee on the page) and I just recently read a novel (though that was SF) where two characters had indeed forgotten to bring the map for a vital infiltration mission. Others only apply to a very limited part of the genre, e.g. the women who are all witches or princesses. But the point that bothers me most is the lack of characters worrying about the economy, cause worrying about the economy is a very contemporary American thing. Even contemporary Germans or contemporary Brits don’t worry about the economy with the same enthusiasm as Americans. So why should characters in a secondary world setting behave like contemporary Americans?

  13. Actually, it WAS how you dealt with the Pee Dilemma that caused me to leap up and buy all your books. The Waste Spell is a brilliant solution, and I can’t believe nobody ever thought of it before.

    • That one came to me when I was a kid. (But then I never thought of magic from the defense/weaponry angle so much as how it would make life better.)

      But it’s nice to know that bit actually worked for someone! 🙂

  14. Research is absolutely key when it comes to writing a great book, especially historical fiction. I just finished reading a wonderful historical fiction titled, “The Romanov Stone” by Robert C. Yeager. I am a huge fan of the Romanov family and the mystery surrounding their lives. I don’t think I would have been able to enjoy the book as much as I did had the author not done a lot of extensive research.

  15. Knowing when not to go into excessive detail is also helpful. I’m a dance historian, and while I don’t expect authors to know much about my field (but hey, I consult!), I am more often irritated by incorrect details than lack of detail.

  16. We each see *our* world differently. But we can be convinced that someone’s portrayal of a town or family or country is real without having experienced exactly that world.

    And we can disbelieve intellectually a world hundreds of years in the future that is too much like ours – enjoying it *because* it is about our people and problems.

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