Posted by: kshayes513 | November 13, 2008

Filling the white spaces on the map


Where do I get new ideas and new questions about worldbuilding? Here’s an example:

The senior partner at the small office where I work has a lovely old cartridge pen that he uses for signing documents that have to look pretty. He’s had the pen for much longer than I’ve known him, and I’ve helped him several times track down places to get supplies and repairs for it. I’ve been familiar with this special pen for years.

Yet it was only last month, when he took it out to sign a letter, that a voice in my head spoke up: “What kind of writing do they use in Khasran?”

I’ve never asked that question before. So my lunch break and my bus ride home were spent scribbling notes on this entirely new issue.

First came the questions: What kind of writing do they have? Is it an alphabet? Pictograms or hieroglyphs? How many people can read or write? Why did they originally need to develop writing? What kind of writing instruments do they use? Horsehair brushes? Reed quills? Graphite or charcoal sticks? Carving in clay or stone?

I suppose if someone had asked me in the early days, whether the residents of Khasran were literate, I might have thought of Islamic calligraphy and learning, and answered, “Of course they are!” I might have speculated that the mukhtars and wizards had great libraries of history and magical lore, and books about kargat. But no one ever brought it up before, least of all me. No books or writing have ever turned up in any story I’ve written or planned.

In my scribbling, I had to ask why. Looking at the world I created gave me some answers. The Khasrani might eventually have borrowed letters, perhaps from Safia’s people, or perhaps from the original builders of their city. Before they became a settled people, they needed writing no more than the aboriginal people of Australia (and that’s not a random comparison, if you know anything at all about the Dreamtime).

We use writing to preserve thoughts in a permanent form, to send messages across long distances (we’re pre-industrial here, so stop waving your BlackBerry in my face!) to record history and culture for posterity, to disseminate government, religious, commercial and cultural information and stuff like that.

When I started thinking about the ways the Khasrani can do all those things without writing, I suddenly had the key to two stories that have been stuck for quite a while, plus a little piece of vital information about the people who built Khasran.

Sometimes I go looking for answers to a question, by doing research into the subject. More often, the question surprises me, like a water balloon smack between the eyes splashing answers and more questions all around. My muse is just making sure I’m paying attention.



  1. I’ve always found this aspect of world-building fascinating, along with language development. I picked up a book recently called “The History of Writing”, might prove inspirational for your quest on this subject.

    Another example of civilization not using much writing is the Irish. Though the conventional myth that they didn’t write anything down is false, they relied heavily on oral tradition and developed what was arguably the most civilized medieval culture in Europe.

    Plus, with magic, you can do a lot more with a spoken or visual tradition than you could do in our world until recently. So perhaps the impetus for writing wasn’t there as it was in our world.

  2. Hey, welcome back, Rich! I miss your comments.

    Yes, being part Irish myself, I always think first of the Irish bards and shanachies when I think about societies that preserve lore in memory. I think I recall that among the Irish, writing down any of the sacred lore was forbidden. Luckily, the monks didn’t share the pagan taboo and recorded a lot of it before preChristian Irish culture was lost forever.

    The History of Writing sounds like a book I’d read just for the fun of it. My current bedtime reading is “The Mother Tongue,” Bill Bryson’s concise and very entertaining history of English. Just now I’m enjoying the chapter on Swearing!

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