I’ve had some requests to share my world-building questions from that 100+ page master list I have. Obviously, I won’t be posting them all. A good number of them are common sense questions. So I’m just going to pick some samples from a few categories to help people get an idea of some of the directions they could be going.
I have mentioned before that the best way to do this for yourself is to pick out a really good, comprehensive history book and sit down with a pad and paper and turn each paragraph (or so) into a question. For instance, I have books on Roman history that discuss slavery in detail. One section talked about the ways slaves would become free. The first questions that spring to mind from that: Does this culture have slavery? Are there ways for slaves to gain their freedom?
Again, I would remind fellow urban fantasy writers that, even if we are working with the modern world, we need to provide complex and believable cultures for the supernatural beings we are introducing. We don’t get a pass on world-building just because we’re working in a contemporary setting.
And again I must give credit to Patricia C. Wrede for her world-building questions, which started me off on my own list (which includes many of her questions) and provided handy categories for organization.
Okay, on to some sample questions:
How many people are there in this country? How does this compare with world population? What is considered a small town/large town/city in terms of number of people? (Example: 1600 AD Ireland, 2.5 to 3 million. In 1660 (after wars), 1 million. Crowded places lead to fences and protection of personal space.)
Is population shifting from rural to urban, south to north, mountains to coast, etc.? Why--invasions, plague, job opportunities, gold rush? What effects has this had on the places being left? The places gaining people?
What is the infant mortality rate for this culture/region? Frankish infant mortality was 45%. Healthier ascetics lived to be 76 (men) and 67 (women). 813-814 AD, the Frankish population included: 22% under 12, 38% young singles, average children per family 2.9.
What are kings called?
What is the royal accouterment of power? A crown or brooch? A sword or cloak? What if it is stolen or take from him in battle?
Does a new king then have a new public title related to his territory or family, used forever after in place of his name by all but immediate family when in private? For instance, the king of the O’Neill clan of Ireland became O’Neill or The O’Neill.
What noble geasa (taboos) are there? Geasa to common people? Is the king allowed/encouraged to participate in dangerous sports, manual labor, kneeling, skinning or cooking an animal or certain animals? (Irish geasa against kings included going alone to attack a wild boar in his den, letting the sun rise while he was still in bed in a certain palace, listening to certain birdcalls in a certain place, bathing in a certain river on a certain day, to ride in a chariot on a certain day, to enter a certain territory during a certain season, to go aboard ship on a certain day, to lead an army through a certain ford on a certain day.) What are the stories behind the geasa?
May charges be brought against a king by anyone, or only by persons of privilege?
Are there signs of a false king? Defeat in battle? Childlessness? Excommunication or faithlessness to the Church? A plague? A livestock disease? An eclipse? A blight on crops? A natural disaster? An early frost? Is one enough, or would a certain number be required over a year or two to qualify as an omen?
What sort of people are part of the king’s permanent retinue? A priest, judge, doctor, poet, historian, courtesan, champion, guards, slaves, bond servants, tailor, craftsmen, house steward or chief of the house, people in charge only of the royal jewels or the royal weaponry, cook, storyteller, musicians, dancers, jugglers, jesters, acrobats, exhibition fighters, hounds-keeper, hand of vengeance, deposers, treasurers, tax collectors?
Are there noble subclasses, and upon what are they based? Amount of land owned, tenants, production, ability to meet yearly tribute quotas?
Do they have patron/client mentor/protégé relationships? Do they dine with their patron at particular meals each day? Making a patron’s dining room like a Mafia court?
Why do people become clients? For protection, political influence, support as poets or philosophers, a share of the patron’s inheritance? What are the daily homage rituals like?
What kind of authority does the patron wield? Can he pressure protégés to convert religions or support a cause en masse? To revolt against a regional government? Is this what qualifies a man for political office or a council seat, the ability to mobilize a loyal group of clients?
Is wealth primarily based on land or on coin from commerce? Is the economy in transition from land-based to coin-based? If so, are there aspects of land culture (like shamans) that are falling from favor? Is land a symbol of old money and coin of new money?
Can either parent expose an infant or kill it? Do they need to agree?
Do they value boys over girls, and if so, only for the first child? Is it PC to expose a girl just for being a girl? Would society rather they give the girl to an order of priestesses, scribes, courtesans, healers, highly-trained royal servants? Are they raised as slaves?
Could a man force his wife to expose her child by charging her with adultery?
Is it preferable to raise children in rural purity or the culture and bustle of a city?
Can children be legally adopted? Who has a say in this? Tribe, clan, sect, family patriarch/matriarch, local churchman, the child’s original tribe/family?
Who chooses a boy’s (or girl’s) occupation, him or his family or mentor? An omen?
If a man is exiled or executed, does his wife share his fate or retain the assumption of innocence as a free person?
Why do people marry? Love, money, kids, compatible abilities, family alliance? Are marriages intended to be monogamous or only to designate legal heirs from a specific union?
How do they think a husband and wife should treat one another? Based on what? A relationship between gods? A prevailing morality? Does a man who is about to make an important decision consult his wife or his friends?
How is marriage carried out? A ceremony, promise, dowry exchange? How is it symbolized? Jewelry, tattoos? Or do they just record the confirmation of the conditions of marriage, like the exchange of the dowry or proof of cohabitation?
What provisions are there for the care of the elderly? How does the culture view one’s responsibility toward the elderly? Can people buy lodging in a monastery for their old age, on payments perhaps, to fix the amount as early in life as possible and avoid inflation? Are certain monasteries so wealthy that they don’t accept applications from those more than 5 years from expected retirement? Will the tribe as a whole care for people who have no one else?
Do they have slavery? Can families sell their children into slavery? (Upper class Romans had dozens of servants and slaves, the middle class one to three.)
What are the beliefs regarding the soul of a slave and its ownership?
Would a slave’s religious status, artistic ability, education be considered flaws for disclosure or added value? Are slaves supposed to be unthinkingly obedient or industrious and quick thinking, to better serve?
Reading through these, one might notice suggestions for conflict, seeds of stories and subplots. That is one of the beautiful things about research and outlining; it generates new inspiration in the process.