Tuesday, May 4, 2010

10 Awesome Books for Fantasy World-Building

I was thinking about this while re-reading Megan Whelan Turner's The Thief, the edition with extras in the back. She talks about how the world is based on Greece, with gods based somewhat on the pantheon of Greek gods, and yet the time period is sometime after the 1500s, technology-wise. I love that, because it's different, and it feels real and familiar to the reader, but at the same time, not quite like any place we know.

Sometimes I think of the setting for a fantasy novel before anything else, and inevitably it is based off something...I mean, if you need to invent an entire culture, maybe quite a few entire cultures for different novels, it does help to base it off something. My favorite books for my personal library, the ones that make me drool when I find them someplace like The Strand or a university library or even more rarely, at Barnes and Noble, are books that cover some aspect of civilization I can work into novels, and the greater span of time and place they cover, the better.

But more than that, I don't want the book to be BORING. Whenever possible, I like illustrations and/or photos and lively text, so I promise that while some of these books are more engaging than others, none of them will read like someone's dissertation.

Here are some of my favorites I've acquired over the years:

Architecture for Peasants!

1. Buildings Without Architects: A Global Guide to Everyday Architecture by John May. This is a fairly small yet lovely, informative, not-too-dry book that talks about houses that ordinary people live in around the world, the materials they use, and has floor plans or illustrations depicting the construction.
See also: 6,000 Years of Housing by Norbert Schoenauer. I haven't gotten this one yet, but I have the title jotted down from seeing it elsewhere.

Architecture for Royalty!
2. Great Palaces of Europe. A book from the 60s that only covers Europe, alas...but for that, it has a wide range of palaces, with interesting text, lots of pictures albeit in black and white, and sometimes floor plans. I am still looking for the perfect book on royal architecture.

Interior Design
3. I can't seem to find a good book on home furnishing around the world throughout time, but as far as European interiors go, I like An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration: From Pompeii to Art Nouveau. Paintings of homes from antiquity on, engagingly explained. (Incidentally, a wonderful book on Victorian interiors, should anyone need it, is called "The Tasteful Interlude". I found this book in a used bookstore in Sarasota while writing Magic Under Glass and it was exactly what I wanted--nothing but period photos of middle-class and upper-middle-class interiors with explanations of what I was looking at!)

4. A Worldwide History of Dress by Patricia Anawalt. I saw this at the Strand, drooled over it, asked for it for Christmas, and NO ONE GOT IT FOR ME. It's expensive, but I must have it when I get my advance for Magic Under Stone... *writhes* The title basically explains it all.
A cheapskate's alternative is Folk and Festival Costume of the World by R. Turner Wilcox.

Global Cuisine
5. The Foodlover's Atlas of the World by Martha Rose Schulman. It's a little skimpy on third world countries, which is too bad, with more of a regional overview than country by country, but for pretty much all the European and Asian countries it has the perfect amount of information to inspire me to write food descriptions: it covers the staples of the diet, and what people eat at different times of day, and has many nice photos as well.

Culinary History
6. The Art of Dining: A History of Cooking and Eating by Sara Paston-Williams. This is a history of British dining, but it is helpful to me in describing how cooking, food supplies and dinner rituals have evolved over centuries, and it's an engaging read with many pictures. I can combine it with books on regional food to evoke another place AND time. I have some other books on the history of food, but they aren't as well organized for a writer looking for specific info.

7. Material World and Women in the Material World by Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio. Love these books! I've read them sooo many times. In the first one, they went around the world and had families place all their positions in their front yard and photographed stuff + family together, then interviewed the family about their lives. In the second, they interviewed women of families (in many cases, the same families) around the world. The interviews and photographs are fascinating and enlightening, heartbreaking and hopeful, and you can't help but think about the world more globally when you're done.

Festivals and Holidays
8. Sacred Festivals by Jeremy Hunter. This book is like, dirt cheap used, so that's nice. It's by no means comprehensive, but you don't really need comprehensive if you just need fantasy world inspiration. It has great photos of some festivals all over the world.

9. The Courts of Europe: Politics, Patronage and Royalty 1400-1800 by A. G. Dickens. Okay, so it's a fantasy world and you very likely may have a court, but do you ever find yourself wondering what happens in a court, besides something about thrones and curtseying and arranged marriages? Or maybe that's just me, but anyway, you get a lot of different courts described in here, which should give you idea. If you want to develop a more modern government, on the other hand, you might draw info from the rather dry but informational How Governments Work.

10. Artificial Sunshine: A Social History of Lighting, by Maureen Dillon. While this book may be a wee more specific than the others I mentioned, I'll bet you'll need it at some point. Another British history that I feel free to adapt to my purposes...

There ya go. Ten (well, ten plus) favorites from my home reference library for building your own culture. I'm always happy to find a new and even better addition, so if you have any favorites, let me know!

P. S. I linked to Amazon because it's the easiest for seeing reviews, availability and such, but as always, I urge you to support indies, used and new!!! (A lot of these are out of print.)


  1. *gasp* This is so helpful! I like writing fantasies myself -- creating "worlds" based off cultures around the world -- so this post made me VERY HAPPY indeed. Thank you for sharing! :)

  2. WOW! Thanks for all the great suggestions! Worldbuilding for me is often very difficult. I watch alot of documentaries on the History Channel and of course read plenty of books (and magazines like Smithsonian) but sometimes you just need a large consentration of a certain thing to help inspire you.

  3. JSavant: Glad it was helpful!

    Arya: I love documentaries and magazines and stuff too... (video is nice sometimes for seeing visuals, too.) But this list is great for those times when you're writing and you're suddenly "what would they eat??" and you can just reach for a book.

  4. What a fantastic list! I found you through the blueboards. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Fascinating! I do so much research for each of my books that it never occurred to me to think about the more *general* sorts of knowledge we as authors must absorb. I'm going to have to check some of these out (the one on lighting sounds especially fascinating).

  6. Elizabeth--Yeah...I love delving into a topic too, and I know you and I share a love of awesome non-fiction books. I like having a good selection of general ones so I will think outside my usual boxes sometimes.

  7. These are awesome recs, Jackie! Especially that round-the-world food atlas and the architecture and lighting books. You can fudge historical lighting, etc, to a certain degree in fantasy, but it's good to know exactly what time periods you're evoking when you mention your character is reading by the light of an oil lamp or something. Sankyuu much~ :D

  8. darkcyradis: Yes, and the history of lighting is pretty interesting, really. Also the history of darkness! i read a book all about how people lived before modern lighting and it was very surprising and fascinating. (can I use more "ing" words here??)

    Nora: Thanks!!