How much research/worldbuilding should I do for a speculative fiction story? The question rose to my mind the first time I read Gene Wolfe’s brilliant The Shadow of the Torturer. The cultures he built for that novel are astounding. I found some of the smallest details made it seem concrete to me. We learn the denominations of coin, even the ones not accepted everywhere. They drink maté and have jobs like Torturer and Costume Shop owner. So the heart of the question is what details should I know about the culture of my setting, and on the heels of that, what details should make it into the work.
As for the second part of that, your story will be your boss, but surely we can come up with some way of categorizing the details we need to know. With this in mind I theorized that the most believable cultures were ones that we know existed. I urge you to go pick up a book at the library or your local bookstore on actual cultures, the weirder the better – Babylonian, Egyptian, Ohio. I grabbed a book, E. A. Wallis Budge‘s Babylonian Life and History. In a chapter called The King and His People I found facts that I decided to play Jeopardy with. When I read the fact I formulated a question that I could use on any culture, real or imagined.
Here is my list:
1. What powers does the King (or ruler or government) have?
2. What classes are the people divided into? Babylonians had Aristocracy (Amelum), Serf (Mushkin) and Slave (Wardum). What classes are responsible for what civic duties? Who fights in war time? etc.
3. What are the roles of men in the family? Women? What are each’s roles in Marriage? Divorce?
4. What do people do to try to ensure children? Which gender is more prized? What happens to unwanted children? What ceremonies and public registries do children make necessary when born? What level of education do children of each caste receive and what is included in that education?
5. At what age could children get married? How were marriages arranged? Dowry? What was ceremony like? Monogamous? Concubines? What celebrations surrounded the marriage? Under what circumstances could they divorce? Polygamy? Polyandry? How does the culture handle childlessness? Adultery? Abandonment?
6. What kind of houses? Furniture? What are vessels for cooking made of? Where did they keep their clothes? What did they wear, if anything, and how did the dress change by caste? What color are their outer garments? How often did they change clothes? What did they wear on high days or holy days?
7. How do they wear their hair/beards? Do insects affect hair (Egyptians shaved their heads and wore wigs to counter lice from the Nile)?
8. Climate affects the need for washings. Dusty? Lush? How often do they bathe? Do they use perfumes? Lotions? Unguents? Eye paint for glare? Beauty Products? How do men and women make themselves attractive? What are bathrooms like? How do they get clean? Jewelry? Incense? Candles?
I suspect that the answers to these will lead to more questions culminating in a heightened understanding of the people of your world. This is not the way. But it’s one you might try. Had I purchased a book on American Indians or the Victorians or somesuch I might have come up with some different questions, but I think these offer a good entry point to get this culture you are inventing under the microscope and start turning it this way and that.
Have fun. Feel free to post any questions that occur to you. Building believable cultures will generate the concrete details we need to add richness to our stories.
Now get to thinkin’!