Since some seemed to have trouble visualizing how the Black and the stars move, I dug up a piece of old artwork that I had laying around. Click for a full view.
My novel is set in an underground city. Never, at any point in the story, do the characters leave this city. Food, water, and shelter are still essential, but the uniqueness of the situation makes lighting, heat, and ways of keeping time just as important.
Tallow candles, candles made from condensed fat, are the source of light for the poorest of the poor. They are smoky, they smell, provide little light, and burn quickly. Even the common humans prefer to use other sources, and these are kept as emergency reserves.
Wax candles are more common to craftsmen, in particular, as they create less smoke and last longer than tallow. In addition, wax candles can be marked and burned to provide clocks. Less practical, ornate candles are also used in the highest districts, as they are more aesthetically pleasing than oil lanterns. Carving out elaborate candles is an established form of art.
Ever-burners are candle hybrids; they provide only a pin-prick of light, and are most commonly used for marking pathways. These candles are made to last far longer than most candles, and can be found along servant’s hallways, roads, and many public buildings in the upper quarters. The University also uses them as decorations in one of their larger hallways to recreate the major star formations on special occasions.
Torches are also used by the poor, and are by and large considered better alternatives for those who would otherwise be using tallow candles. Torches are usually made out of twisted scrap wood that can not be used for building (as plant material that grows from geothermal heat is farmed professionally for its by-products in the lower and warmer levels). The drawback to torches is that in caves and tunnels, the air can hold pockets of flammable gases, and they are not the safest source of light available. They will burn for a little over an hour.
This is the safest source of light to use, a good oil lamp is expensive. The best are cased in metal and glass, and have mechanisms inside for lighting the wick, for trimming the wick, and for extinguishing the flame quickly. Different models are available, and because the Mordache are good with glass work, some can be very fragile. Some oil lamps are little more than open flames, wicks dipping into a glass sphere with the flame out in the open (usually hung from the ceiling), some are meant to be stationary pieces.
Phosphorus was first made by distilling off phosphorus vapor from precipitated phosphates heated in a retort. The precipitated phosphates were made from ground-up bones that had been de-greased and treated with strong acids. (From Wikipedia: link.)
Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? In addition to being a low-heat light source (the lamps in Vastii glow from four hours to almost five days, depending on the mixture), making phosphorus can poison and kill the chemist trying to distill it. The method above describes the first commercial use of phosphorus in the 19th century, but as light is so important in Vastii, and since phosphorus can be discovered in urine, it’s not unreasonable to adopt the same refining techniques.
Phosphorus is flammable, however it does not burn hot, and doesn’t need much oxygen. The typical phosphorus lamps are glass globes, sealed, and bound with metal. The advantage to phosphorus lamps is that they can be swung, turned on their sides, and as long as the seal remains in place, they won’t explode if exposed to very flammable gases.
Very commonly seen in the first several levels: public lighting is a sign of wealth, and the most impressive are fire bowls, metal bowls bearing burning oil mixtures. Depending on what has been added to the oil, the color of the flame can be changed to purple, red, orange, green, or blue. These bowls are set on the ground, or hung like a chandelier.
The most impressive fire bowl in the city is in the Arena, where a balcony that hangs over the Pit uses oil like a fountain. The exterior of the Arena is sculpted in the form of a reclining god, over a hundred feet fall and spanning the four levels that the Arena cuts through, and this balcony is an outstretched hand in the center of the city. Formally, this balcony was used as a place of execution. During special events, oil will seep along the edges and create a burning fountain, droplets of burning oil falling into the Pit and attracting attention all through the city with the spectacle.
Blue Crystal is set entirely in a city called Vastii. I’ll touch on that next, before I get down to the basics: food, water, clothes, shelter, light. I should mention first that this is a large city, complicated, and I should probably take two weeks just to cover the different levels, not to mention some of the notable buildings.
So, this is a brief, incomplete overview to give an idea of the setting before I delve into other essentials.
Vastii, the king’s city: ruled by the Kanichende family, whose crest is a serpentine dragon in gold curling across a field of stars. Vastii is built into the ground, into the shaft of a now dormant volcano and covered over to protect the residents from the cold on the surface. Temperatures here range from roughly -5 to -20 degrees Celsius, depending on where in the city you are. There are places even warmer deep in the earth, but the trade-off is sulfur and other various forms of gas. Dig too far down, and eventually magma will be rediscovered. References to glowing rivers are a very common form of profanity.
Vastii is built around a very large, circular hole in the earth, called the Pit. Along the Pit runs a long road that descends counter-clockwise, always keeping the open ledge on the left as it goes further down. This is called the Spiral Highway. Carts, shipments, anything moving from one level of the city to another will be transported (under heavy guard) along this route. Though it’s a good path to take for someone who doesn’t wish to get lost in the tunnels, it can also be very dangerous. The easiest way to commit a murder in Vastii is to shove a man off of the edge, and there are no rails.
At the very top of the Spiral Highway is the palace, which is build into the stone at the top. As the residents of Vastii had carved and dug their city rather than building it per say, the idea of building roofs are lost in their architects. They prefer to make elaborate facades without defining an external structure, which would take much more work. Across the Pit from the palace is the university, which also takes up a space on the level below it. Not far from that is the Arena, which takes up four levels and provides stairs. Using the arena, a man can move quickly from the fifth level of the city to the second.
Each level of the city is defined by the palace. The palace begins the first level, and where the road moves under the palace walk is where the second level begins. Furthermore, they define their addresses by level, then radial degrees, then distance from the edge of the Pit. The palace, for instance, is 1:00:75, with ’75’ being the distance in yards to the palace gate (through a long path of sculpture and rock gardens). The University is 1-2:175:05, indicating that the structure spans two levels, is almost exactly halfway across the Pit from the palace (175 degrees), and begins only fifteen yards away from the edge. The Arena is at 2-5:220:00, as the Spiral highway moves through the Arena’s facade.
Beyond the Arena is the craftsmen’s district, and after that, the very humble cave dwellings of the common men. Most don’t bother with addresses down there; once you get past the seventh level there’s no point in counting. No one respectable lives down there, no one who would know or use an address. Of course, there are numerous side streets that link to the Spiral Highway. Near the bottom they move like the tunnels of burrowing insects, the middle is filled with nonsensical but helpful routes to spare travelers from needing to take trips around the highway, and the top levels have long, straight avenues, each home with its own address given by the city’s cartographers.
I don’t like naming planets. Somewhere inside my head, I reject the idea. Our planet has a hundred different names, and none at all if you think about it. Earth. Terra. Dirt. Land. We’re too familiar with our world to give it a proper name, and the same must be true on any planet that a race lives on. I’ll start by noting the world’s most drastic geographic feature instead.
There is no sun.
This is not technically true, of course. Yes, it’s fantasy, but on the whole I prefer to write low fantasy, which tries to be very realistic. Unless it’s a planned side-effect of my supernatural elements, I try to make every effort not to bend the laws of physics and nature. There is a sun. But the inhabitants have never seen it.
There are stars in the sky, bright ones, and when the day is half over they are replaced by a wall of darkness that sweeps over everything, plunging the world into darkness (and is known by various names, most of which translate to simply ‘the black’). Their world is not a happy place, persay. The surface in uninhabitable for the most part, covered with dry snow that picks up easily in the howling wind. There are oceans, yes. If you can find them under the ice. Temperatures on the surface range from -40 to -50 degrees (Celsius), about the temperature of Northern Siberia in the winter.
The solar system my world is placed in has a sun slightly older than our own, a little larger, not quite as warm or bright. It has several planets orbiting around it, and one of them is a gas giant with several moons of various sizes. One, a little over nine-tenths of the earth’s size, is capable of sustaining life, but the drawback is that it very nearly matches the giant’s rotation cycle. As the gas giant completes a year, the moon orbits around the planet once, and in doing so stays at about the same position in relation to the sun. This populated moon has spent centuries spinning along quietly in its host’s shadow.
Long enough for its societies to collapse, its cities to fall. The preparations for the long dark were spoiled, generations after stopped learning from their parents. As the world rotated from stars to black, men lost their grasp on technology, forgot that the sun would someday return, and devolved into a much more primal race.
Here is a list of the participants for World Building Month, one day early as promised.
Latecomers are welcome (just comment with a URL of where you’ll be posting, same to anyone whom I might have missed (though I hope not)). Participants without links for will still be listed, but I’d still love to get a URL from you guys.
K. Jayne Cockrill
So, we have some familiar faces, many new ones. This looks like a really fun crowd, and I know that there are some really talented authors participating. Looking forward to see what everyone comes up with!
I’ve been working on a (rough) list of all the topics that world building could cover in speculative fiction, which quickly became too long and ambitious to ever be able to cover in a month. Still, I think it could probably serve as a guide or inspiration. Most of these topics overlap.
Once upon a time, when I was trying to avoid defining a plot, a beginning, or an end to the vague story-idea I had in my mind (a few years ago– internet role play, of all things, taught me how to move a story along, but that’s another issue entirely), I used to build static characters that only had situations, not actions, and worlds with details but not events. I made maps. I drew terrain, and defined linguistic patterns so that I could have realistic naming conventions for the cities.
Saint Know-All brought up the point that world-building can be completely distracting from the writing process, and I thought that I’d address that. World building is done to enrich your story. It requires action, and relevance to the project. It needs to contribute. After all, there’s not much point detailing characters that won’t be mentioned in the story. And world-building is important in genres other than fantasy and sci-fi.
Building a planet, galaxy, alien races, and government are all world-building. But so is defining the layout of a character’s house, the kind of furniture in the front room, the name of the street that said character lives on, the gossip that is spread around, and the statue that was defaced in the local park. No one can completely define the place they’re writing… and when you start mapping out blades of grass, you’ve probably gone too far. So first, before we begin our world building project, we’ll need to define its scope.
Simply put, where does the story go, what topics does it consider or touch on, and what are we going to see most often? Detail that.
For instance, if your character is a member of the local nobility, you should have a very, very good idea of how their system works, what the local issues are, and what duties fall to whom in the government. Even if a king isn’t introduced, you should know what kind of man he is and what he will and will not involve himself with. What people eat halfway across the world from said character will not be considered important, unless the character has a penchant for foreign delicacies.