In A World....
I was asked a couple of times at recent conventions about world-building - about the whys and wherefores of inventing an entirely other world for the purposes of storytelling, when a perfectly good world already exists for us to evaluate. Which is, of course, perfectly accurate.
And there's also that old chestnut, "write what you know" - and don't think that didn't used to keep me up late at night with emotional and psychological conflict. Write what I know, and yet I invent a whole other world filled with steam-powered giant robots, angels of death, talking (and flying) cats, and undying sandmen? Yeah, that rather seems to spit in the eye of reality, I suppose, even by the slimmest margin of credulity.
But here's the little secret I have for you - "write what you know" isn't actually to be taken one hundred percent literally. At least, not at face value, anyway. The characters' emotions, the basic human response, fears, dreams, aspirations and frustrations - all these things are based upon what you (or me), as a writer, know.
An old teacher of mine told me once that the key to writing any story was to have lived a story. All those emotions into which you stuff your characters are emotions you've experienced, those darkest moments and brightest dreams the ones you pluck from within your own fluttering consciousness.
And the world in which your characters live is comprised of the very starstuff that makes up the world in which you live. Just, you know, twisted and tweaked as much as the author needs in order to construct their tale. Even in Aerthos, I don't even feel like I worked very hard to mask it. "Aerthos" isn't so far off from "Earth", and many of the bits and baubles there I deliberately made very referential so as to be palatable to my readers. The old language is slightly Latin - close enough to feel like Latin, at any rate - and though I put two moons in the sky, I kept measurements in the metric system, gave them the same cardinal directions, and left in things like dogs and cats and rats and butterflies, among the xavols, feranzanthums, mundalines and...whatever the hell Rickets is.
For me, that's the kind of science fiction and fantasy I enjoy most. Give me a world that is comprehensible enough to get me in the front door, and then take me on a journey. Like in the Studio Ghibli movie, "Spirited Away", let me get a ways in on the path and let me turn around and wonder in unfeigned amazement, "how in blazes did I get here?" Whereupon the author winks back to say "I led you here, sir. For I am Spartacus."
What do you like about world building? If you're a writer, what is it about the world building that challenges you the most - and what satisfies you the most about the process? And as a reader, what are the bits in a new and fictional world that has stuck with you the longest?