Publisher: Starwarp Concepts
Author: Richard C. White
Genre: Writer’s guide to creating fictional settings
Pages: 160 pages
Retail Price: $12.99 softcover; $4.99 digital
One topic which tends to terrify beginning fiction writers, as well as fledgling roleplaying game designers and Game Masters, is that of world building. Whether it’s crafting an encyclopedic backdrop for an ongoing series of two fisted space opera tales or sketching together even the barest skeleton of reference for a one shot fantasy adventure in a backwoods farming community, the task of bringing a fictional setting to life can be a daunting one. Richard C. White, and his recently published Terra Incognito: A Guide to Building the Worlds of Your Imagination, aims to lighten some of the heavy mental lifting of world creation in order to make this essential building block of good fiction more accessible to fledgling writers.
White lays out his approach from top to bottom. Starting with a blank sheet of paper, the author recommends sketching out the rough geographical details of your continents before beginning to drill further down into the particulars of rivers and lakes, mountain ranges, deserts and so forth. Historically the geological lay of the land, so to speak, and availability of resources have determined where people settle and civilizations begin to take root.
Travelers across the Western United States may not realize that the interstate highway they’re driving upon was originally leveled and graded to be used by the transcontinental railroad. Before that these byways were trampled down wagon routes well traveled by settlers heading west and, prior to that, simple foot worn trails traversed by native peoples. Granted, I’m simplifying a bit (18th Century Native Americans didn’t blast their way through mountains to get to where they were going) but humans have an uncanny knack of congregating where resources are plentiful and routes of commerce easily established.
Terra Incognito contains many chapters devoted to the various aspects which add up to a realistic and believable fictional world. Various topics such as governments, religions, trade, names, and the military are explored in a way in which each building block is laid upon the foundation of previous chapters. The lay of the land tends to determine where sources of food, fuel, and materials may be found. In turn these locales will draw people (or sentient creatures I guess I’ll say) to consume these resources. Groups tend to form communities, communities lead to cities, cities lead to the establishment of cultures, and so on. I’m sure some prospective world builders may be a bit overwhelmed by all the information presented so it’s important to keep in mind to simply take what you need and leave the rest on a back burner; creating a backdrop for a one shot roleplaying adventure in a backwoods farming community will surely require much less fleshing out than a proposed trilogy of tales set in a far flung dystopian future.
Each of the chapters begins with a story snippet which incorporates many of the tips the reader has already been exposed to and, truthfully, I find this to be these to be the weakest sections of the book. White mentions early on that he’s a “plot driven” writer as opposed to “character driven” and that’s more than apparent while reading the snippets as they’re a bit dull and lifeless. Plus, the author advises not to pile on too many of your world’s details at one time and then turns around and seemingly discards his own advice.
White concludes Terra Incognito with a rather lengthy interview he conducted with best selling author Tracy Hickman (of Forgotten Realms fame) in 2012. Hickman provides his take on world building – much of it reinforcing what White has already covered – and it makes for an interesting, if a tocuh redundant, read. Still it’s always fun to see a writer have their brain picked for useful nuggets.
I think Terra Incognito is a solid introduction to the subject of world building. The book succeeds in helping the aspiring writer in creating a skeletal framework for which to hang the moving parts required of a believable fictional setting. I can’t see the book being essential reading for Game Masters or designers who have already digested other volumes on the subject (many of the titles from Kobold Press for example) since, outside of the Hickman interview, Terra Incognito isn’t adding anything revolutionary to the writers’ toolbox. For those who have yet to dip their toes into the creative waters of devising a fictional setting however, the book makes for a mighty good reference aimed to point you to the stream.