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World-Building 102: The Word-Smith's Craft

When I began writing fantasy, one of my goals was to present an imaginary world with depth enough to satisfy my own standards as a reader.  When my first novel The Burning Stone1 was released in 1987, a  reviewer for Locus Magazine complimented me on creating "a lived-in world, and lively one".

So what (besides geography and history) makes for a "lived-in, lively" fantasy world?

The definitive factor is what I like to call "deep structure".  Deep structure encompasses a range of background details which have created the situation your characters find themselves at the start of your story.  Contributing factors include customs, traditions, codes of behavior, technology, art, philosophy, and metaphysics (especially important with regard to how magic works in your world) Deep structure isn't meant to present itself as full-on exposition (the infamous info-dump).  Ideally, it should surface in the form of casual referencing. The technique of selective referencing is particularly well demonstrated in Philip Pullman's best selling novel Northern Lights.2 

Part One is set in "Oxford".  That this is not the Oxford we know is clear from the novel's opening sentence:

Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall.

By the end of the page we know that in this world, all human beings are accompanied by daemons - external projections of their inner natures manifested in animal form.

Pullman uses invented terminology to establish a Victorian/Edwardian level of culture. Air transport is by means of dirigibles operating from aerodocks.  Lighting is supplied either by anbaric energy (a fantasy analogue to electricity) or by naptha (gaslight).  Pullman also lends substance to Lyra's world with references to landmarks (the Shot Tower), institutions (the Magisterium), and distinctive sub-cultures (most strikingly the panserbjorne, a race of sentient polar bears with a kingdom in the far North).

From a fantasy-writer's perspective, when you're "word-smithing", you're fishing for a word that conveys certain specialized shades of meaning.  Some methods of word-smithing are easier than others.  Here are three optional approaches.

1.  Go for an evocative combination of sounds: a beriaster sounds like it ought to be some kind of jewel (beri faintly suggests berry or beryl; aster is a flower).

2.  Play around in the OED with the aid of thesaurus until you find a rare or archaic synonym for the idea you're trying to convey.  (In The Burning Stone, I borrowed the term orison from the annals of medieval mysticism to denote a mage's working trance state.) Alternatively, survey a cluster of words related by concept, and see if you can replace a commonplace word with an unfamiliar close cousin.  (I ended up using the word prelate as a substitute for priest.)

3.  If your linguistic skills are up to the challenge, you can wire together a linguistically viable neologism.  (My husband can juggle Greek and Latin roots like beanbags.)

This business of word-smithing probably sounds appallingly pedantic to some of you out there. However, if you can invest the creative energy, the results are often spectacular. 


1 Just recently I learned, somewhat to my surprise, that another book entitled The Burning Stone appeared in print back in 1999, written by Kate Elliott.  If anybody out there is interested in trying to pick up a copy of my Burning Stone, make sure you check the author's name.  Hers in Volume III in a series called The Crown of Stars. 

2 Published in the States under the title The Golden Compass.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.


  1. Great post, Debby. I think it is a fabulous use of creative energy, personally.

    The first line of Northern Lights was what pulled me into the book (if you'll excuse the pun on the author's name). And I loved his "word-smithing" - very clever. I wish he'd done a bit more with the first story, though, and the characterisation of Lyra.

  2. Once again, Debby, within your genre-specific post I find wisdom applicable to all. Especially when writing stories set in "our own backyard," we writers can fail to evoke the "customs, traditions, codes of behavior, technology, art, and philosophy" that can give our worlds the deep structure that can support and enhance our stories. Great food for thought!

  3. I'm going to have to seriously consider switching genres ... my wife says I live in lively fantasy world.

  4. Your advice applies to every genre. Using colloquialisms and slang can bring a specific geographic region to life and evoke a specific era. I am thrilled when a writer can take me to an entirely new world and make it feel real through their selection of details. It is extremely hard work.

  5. Very interesting look at creating different worlds, and I agree that the tips can apply in part to setting a scene in any genre.

  6. I would only caution to be careful of overuse. If it gets to be "too much", you'll lose readers. Just enough to give the flavor of this new world... or old world, if you're talking in a regional vernacular on Earth.

  7. I agree with Dani. Don't go too far over the top -- and always include enough familiarity for readers to connect with characters and story. Great imagination, well developed and interesting characters, innovative word choices and a glossary that defines them, details that inspire sharp word pictures, and a compelling plot will help to build your audience and leave them eagerly awaiting your next book.

    Great post, Debby

  8. Useful post, and I liked that you brought in details regarding Northern Lights. I'd forgotten about those things, but I think you're right, the details there really did help build the world. I remember being fascinated by the daemons and the things like anbaric energy. :-)


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