This week I made the students of my worldbuilding course happy because I announced one extra lesson, free.
The need to add a lesson became apparent to me when I realized there is one essential worldbuilding question we had not asked ourselves, and we had not explored – that question being WHY.
Which is of course very philosophical and all that, but more simply, it is
Why do we decide to set our story in a specific world?
Why that world and not another, that time and not another, that city and not another?
And no, “Because” is not a good answer.
The whole thing came to my mind after crashing into a series of books that were set in a certain secondary world, or time, or place, just because.
You could have translated the whole plot, the characters and the events anywhere else in the multiverse, and the story would not have changed a bit.
So I went through my catalogue, to test my own choices.
Of all of my works, The Corsair is the one in which the choice of the setting – the Mediterranean in the 1950s – was the hardest to work out. My first plans were for a series set in the 1930s, classic pulp time, with the rising shadows of war, nazism and fascism as dark clouds on the horizon.
The story went nowhere – and it took me some time to realize that a post-war time frame was more suited to the tone of the stories I had in mind, and the society and events would provide a better background for my stories. It gave me a set of sights and sounds, so to speak, to which I was able to anchor my narratives.
For Aculeo & Amunet, the choice of the Third Century AD was a side effect of building the character of Aculeo. I needed a veteran from some Middle-Eastern/North African campaign, and the Zenobia revolt sounded like fun. Only later, reading about the history of that time, did I realize I had picked one of the most chaotic, confused and wild times in Roman history. But that, too, was good for me – because the crazy situation of the empire in the Third Century is very “modern” and conductive of good plots.
The Contubernium stories, being a spin-off of Aculeo & Amunet, inherited the same setting.
BUSCAFUSCO is set here and now, because I wanted to vent my frustration at the backwater place I live in, and at the same time there was this idea of using fiction to raise awareness of this World Heritage territory in order to attract foreign tourists. Then the deal with the local Chamber of Commerce fizzed, and BUSCAFUSCO remained his own man, alone in the hills of Astigianistan. A situation that suits him fine, or so he tells me.
The same reason – venting my frustration at the territory and its inhabitants – is at the root of my “Horrors of the Belbo Valley” anthology series.
I chose Shanghai for The Ministry of Thunder because Shanghai was “the Paris of the East”, and the epitome of the city of intrigue and adventure in the 1930s. It would work fine as gateway of the Mysterious East, and was at the same time modern and timeless. True, the novel meandered out of the city and along the Silk Road – but you know I like the Silk Road, right?
Currently, The Ministry of Lightning, the sequel to The Ministry of Thunder, looks like it will stay in Shanghai for the duration, and that’s fine with me because Shangahi in 1937 is absolutely the perfect backdrop for the story I am going to tell.
And the whole world behind Hope & Glory was designed because I was tired of run-of-the-mill steampunks in goggles and corsets, and because I wanted a world in which there could be a good, solid reason for a “Victorian” civilization to flourish in the 20th century.
So, one way or another, all my worlds were chosen by design, or by lucky fortuitous coincidence.
And this is going to be an important point in my course, because so far we have failed to mention that worldbuilding begins with the choice of the kind of world you want to win, and it must be a logical decision.