The History of World-Building

One of the coolest things about working in the speculative fiction genre is that I don’t have to take the world as it is; I can make up a world that suits me.

But don’t get the idea that world-creation is a wondrous free-for-all in which you come up with all kinds of fantastical ideas, ask your questions about “why,” “how,” and “then what,” and then there’s this big magical pile of good stuff, and then you start writing. Believe me, I wish it were that easy.

Worlds don’t spring out of nothing. Not even fantastical ones. Whatever circumstances prevail in your world during your story, you can be sure that at some earlier time, circumstances were different, and somehow, those circumstances evolved from thither to hither.


Even if you’re dealing strictly with human societies, a vital part of world-creation is the history of those communities in your story. A mob of torch-wielding, superstitious peasants doesn’t just assemble for no reason. Before they were a mob, they were individuals. Why are they upset? What are they superstitious about? Why are they superstitious?

Similarly, bandits don’t hassle the trade-roads for no reason. Very few people would willingly live the life of a medieval bandit: constantly on the run from the law, never knowing where your next meal or a stout pair of boots was coming from. The life of a bandit was even more nasty, brutish, and short than that of the common peasant. So why do it? To answer that question, consider the history of the culture.

For example, during the Crisis of the Third Century in the declining Roman Empire, there arose groups of peasant insurgents called bagudae in the less-Romanized provinces of Gaul and Spain. Why? Because political ineptitude, foreign depredations, and the cruelty of landowners and clerics created an environment of ongoing chaos and political degradation within the regional power structures of the late Empire. Impoverished and dispossessed free peasants, reinforced by partisan fighters, runaway slaves, and deserters from the Roman Legions and other militaries banded together to resist labor exploitation, punitive laws, and unjust levies, taking advantage of marginal areas of wilderness to escape detection and punishment by local government forces.

Thus, any random bagudae you might call out for an interview will come always and already equipped with all this history. He didn’t just hit the open road one fine sunny morning in June to take up a life of crime. He lost his farm to corrupt churchmen. His wife and kids were killed by marauding Germanic warriors (who were themselves migrants ahead of the Goths and Huns behind them). He was press-ganged into the local Imperial Legion, but his squad was ordered out on a suicide mission by an inept Imperial officer whose only qualification for rank was his noble birth. In other words, he has reasons for taking up with a band of ne’er-do-wells to haunt the trade routes and scrape a living off passersby.

Likewise, neighboring kingdoms don’t just go to war for no reason. Wars are expensive and horribly inconvenient, not to mention the loss of life that comes with them (and the attendant loss of tax revenues that dead men can’t pay, and the labor shortage created by soldiers away on campaign, and the crippled and dead men who return but can’t work, and the problems of widowhood and orphans left in their wake). While it can often seem like wars arise out of immediate circumstances, very often these causus belli are little more than propaganda overlaid on a much deeper and longer-lasting political rivalry (like weapons of mass destruction used to disguise a family feud).

By developing a history for your world and the cultures within it, you can resist the easy answers, such as “they’re just a bunch of ne’er-do-wells out to steal a living from honest folk” and “these kingdoms have always been at war.” Instead, you have the potential for your bandits, or your superstitious, torch-wielding peasants, or your mighty kingdoms, to have deeper motivations and broader goals. This in turn, creates more opportunities for your main characters to come into conflict with those goals and motivations.

The Kingdom of Droma

Map of Droma and the Surrounding Lands. Designed and Illustrated by Cornelia Yoder.

Map of Droma and the Surrounding Lands. Designed and Illustrated by Cornelia Yoder. © 2015 Michael E. Dellert.

So for a moment, let’s consider my Kingdom of Droma from A Merchant’s Tale. Those of you who have read Hedge King in Winter will already be familiar with the bandit problem that the main character faced in that story. A Merchant’s Tale then takes those events from recent history and builds on them.

And the bandits have a history and motivation of their own. Like the bagudae, the bandits of Droma are largely dispossessed peasants, driven from their own lands by corruption, famine, plague, and political instability. This makes them ripe to accept bribes from ambitious local nobles who seek to direct their depredations against political rivals. If they’re going to go about the business of brigandage anyway, why not get paid for their troubles as well?

Droma also occupies a strategic position in the local geography. Across the river to the west is Gruiniath, one of the five major kingdoms in the region. Droma itself belongs to the larger Fifth-Kingdom of Hagall. Gruiniath and Hagall are at odds.

Why? In part, because yes, it’s always and already been that way, ever since the first settlers came to Iathrann and one settler’s son took Gruiniath as his home, while another took Hagall.

But more recently than that, tribes from Gruiniath were driven out of their homeland because of a dispute over a royal succession. Those tribes came into Hagall as conquerors, seizing the lands from the descendants of the original settlers. Neither side has forgotten this fact. The new kings of Hagall remember that they should be kings of Gruiniath, and the kings of Gruiniath remember that the Hagall-kings are dangerous upstarts.

So that’s two (of many) historical reasons for Gruiniath and Hagall to be at war, with Droma caught between them.

More than that, those original settlers in Hagall were not exterminated by the incomers from Gruiniath. They were driven out of the best lands and into the northern and eastern mountains, where they continue to linger. Ostensibly, they owe fealty to the new line of kings in Hagall, but they have their tribal pride and long memories. They remember a day when their own people once held the High Kingship of the whole region. So these original tribes have always been a fractious part of the recent history of the Kingdom of Hagall, and Droma sits right on the border between these old rebellious tribes and the new dynasty of invader tribes.

Not to mention the dynastic foundations for rivalry between Droma and those neighbors who are its erstwhile allies. Centuries of intermarriages, cattle-raids, and other “border incidents” lie between the kings of Droma and the kings of their neighboring tribes. None of this is forgiven or forgotten, though it may be glossed over when political expediency demands it.

All of this history works together to create opportunities for conflict, to explain the tensions that underlie the story of A Merchant’s Tale, and to deepen the personalities and motivations of the characters involved.

The Wayfarer’s Guide to Droma

For those of you who share my interest in this sort of world-building, and for those who want to get a deeper insight into the world of Hedge King in Winter and A Merchant’s Tale, I’m offering a free, limited-time, special offer: The Wayfarer’s Guide to Droma, an insider’s look into the history and people of the most troublesome hedge kingdom on the High King’s Road.

In this very special book, you’ll learn:

  • How kingship works in Droma,
  • What the calendar looks like, and how the people tell time, and
  • A brief synopsis of the settlements in Droma, who rules them, and why they’re important.

You’ll also get the complete Epistles of Eithne and Eowain, a series of correspondences that passed between the protagonist of Hedge King in Winter and his would-be bride in the weeks leading up to the events in A Merchant’s Tale, as well as a cultural study on the laws and customs related to marriage in the Land of Droma.

And all this will only be available to a very select group of people.

How do you get on the VIP list? Nothing could be simpler:

  1. Join the waiting list for A Merchant’s Tale by signing up below.
  2. Pre-order the book now, or buy a copy of A Merchant’s Tale when it launches.

During launch week, I’ll call attention to this special offer and send a special invitation to all those on the list. Only those invited will be able to download their very own copy of The Wayfarer’s Guide to Droma.

Already pre-ordered your copy? Awesome! Just put yourself on the list, and you’ll get the invitation too!

Just sign up here!

leaderboard-PreOrder-A Merchant's Tale


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Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.

Posted in A Merchant's Tale, Fiction, World-Building

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The Author
Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.
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