Worldbuilding: Down the Hold

In case anyone’s interested, the Serenity is physically larger than but has a bit less cargo capacity than a fair-sized junk from the Yuan Dynasty.

…Yes, this is important. Especially for writers.

Writers deal in the written word. And yet humans are, overwhelmingly, visual creatures. So we sculpt worlds, characters, and settings out of language, hoping we get our ideas across well enough that the reader can “see” the story in their heads. That can work. To a point. But it works better if you know what visual references you and your reader have in common.

Not too many people know what the inside of a cargo ship looks like these days; how big it is, how tall it is, how the space inside echoes, or grows muffled when it’s filled with solid objects. But a lot of modern-day readers of SF and fantasy have seen the inside of Serenity. And Joss Whedon had the cargo hold built as one set, specifically so you could see characters move through it as a real space.

This is important to the reader, and to the writer. In order to be able to describe what’s going on to your reader, you have to be able to put it together in your own head, first. Try to picture a fight scene going on in an ancient sailing ship? Your brain might be distracted by the little details of whole “ancient ship” aspect, and completely miss the larger scale of, how much room do your characters have to move for this fight? But if you can take an image of a known space that you have seen, and then mentally add details like “wood, hanging ropes, tar sealing bulkheads” – you’re more likely to get any action scenes right.

And if you get that right – how high your martial artist can jump without concussing himself, how hard he hits the bulkhead trying to dodge, what ropes he has to avoid cutting as he slashes – your readers will forgive you a lot.

Find ways to get a mental picture of the kinetics in your stories. If you can’t climb a mountain, find a bit of rocky hill to wrestle your way up. Don’t throw yourself into the sea in a storm, but try swimming, and think how it’d go downhill with high waves and the odd lightning bolt. Don’t give yourself hypothermia, but get cold enough to feel how your fingers get fumbly. And maybe you can’t learn swordplay, but you can get an iado manual and a stick and flail around. Just… not near any lamps or vases, roommates tend to get cranky about that….

Oh, and every once in a while, get a blueprint of a spaceship. Because awesome. 😉


21 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Down the Hold

  1. “Just… not near any lamps or vases, roommates tend to get cranky about that….”

    Speaking from experience?

    I get that it’s important to know where and what’s what in space. Part of the reason I love map making, whether geographical or inside something like a ship. It lets me know where something is, including a lot of miscellaneous items that most people don’t think about.

    Including ropes and barrels. Though every once in a while rope can unwind and end up in places that it shouldn’t be…

    Makes for an interesting battle environment.

    Gosh, imagine duking it out on board a crabbing ship. All those cages hanging from chains? I’ve heard people can get taken out by them on a good day if one isn’t careful. Use them as a weapon? In the middle of a storm? Ups the danger factor.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. How big a Junk? The ones used for Oceanic voyages and India to Europe are huge! The ones that went around the Indonesia and Malay and related oceanic islands are small. I’ve been on some of the wooden ship replicas and the Constitution and there isn’t much space available for fights but most fighting would have been on deck and in the masts. Cannon decks would be full of cannon and trained crews.
    What gets me about various bad sailing ship stories is mention of beds, or candles. A bed would take up too much space — luxury is having a hanging bed instead of a hammock. Fire is strictly regulated aboard a ship. Lamps are only barely possible. Lights out mean all fires are doused except one maybe in the gallery and that is always watched.

    Liked by 4 people

      1. Didn’t see the link until you mentioned it. Now a fight will depend on whether the ship is full or empty. A fight could go from compartment to compartment in an empty ship but be impossible in a fulling laden ship.

        Liked by 4 people

  3. Then, being a writer, trying to take advantage of what the word can do that the camera can’t.

    The first is that it can characterize. Your camera, with all its focus, can’t have one character instantly date the house as being built in different era, and another deduce how the prevailing winds mean that one side is sheltered so that you can grow a tender plant, or spring flowers will grow earlier.

    The second is that you can load your language. It matters whether the ballgown is white as — snow, bone, pearl, moonlight, starlight, a swan, etc. And if you note those aren’t the same white, well, you aren’t a camera and the reader might come up with the wrong shade even if you get the right description.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. How the space is filled, or not, is indeed important. And, don’t forget there are other things you can use for size comparison, not just colors. As big as a Blue whale means something. And as tall as the pyramids means something else.

    …Of course, with magic thrown into the mix that can mess measurements like that up for Jason and Mary too. Blue whales where they land could be ten percent bigger than back home. Or, maybe they have to deal with a shark the size of Megalodon. Or maybe some other extinct animal they aren’t equipped to deal with.

    And, animals large enough to eat a human in one bite is a terrifying thought. Because then, you need to keep where the edge of the ship is in mind, lest you fall overboard…

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Remember that weight will determine limits as well as volume. One thing that aided Irish immigration was that ships would fill up by weight first, leaving room for immigrants.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. There’s also a question about what the characters know about the ship.

    The new guy is an excellent perspective to show the reader what it looks like to inexperienced eyes.

    The experienced sailor actually knows what they are looking at and can navigate confidently.

    A strange ship might have some surprises.

    Someone who is experienced fighting on a ship will have the advantage, even over a better fighter.

    If you have a ship where they expect to be fighting on it, like a pirate ship or a demon hunting ship, they might have special arrangements to give them an advantage like barriers and handholds.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. I spent many fun hours since I was little designing “perfect spaces.” Very blocky ones. On graph paper. It involved a lot of “k, this is how much space i use, give it another half foot… and round it up to match the units on the graph paper… (I think I went with ahlf a foot, usually, it was pretty big blocks.)

    Perfects for what varied, of course, but now I have a very utilitarian, almost brutalist layout for where my primary POV character has been living since he was about 18 or so, and even though that is never going to be actually on screen, he DOES compare what he sees with what he’s use to. So, since he usually has a “most colleges would blush to have this as a dorm room setup” sized area, he gets really embarrassed to be given a set of rooms with a huge living area, a cooking area, a sleep area almost as large as the living area, that has its own storage the size of the cooking area, and a dedicated washroom!
    Meanwhile, the guy giving it to him feels bad because he only has the one guest-area set up for people.
    He never *has* more than either one person or a married pair visit him, there are MUCH better rooms that are sitting empty– the former will only be mentioned in passing, and the latter will become a plot point. Eventually.

    …designing these things also gives me something to do when I can’t find any words that don’t make me hate the world I’m trying to write in. 😀

    Liked by 3 people

    1. “It isn’t the size of the ship in the fight, it is the size of the fight in the ship” is probably not what you want to hear just after you learn that the crew of your zodiac will be taking on the USS Harry S Truman.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. In the Battle off Samar, Americans had air superiority and the Japanese awareness that American reinforcements could arrive at any time, and they still gave a number of encouraging speeches last stand style.

        Helped that the Japanese overestimated their size and armor because they attacked all out.


      2. It was vastly more fun to be fighting the Japanese against ridiculously superior odds, than to be in Part II of the story, when they were fighting against sharks and the ocean.

        And yet, a lot of the Taffy people did survive. That’s the really amazing bit.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I fear I am one of the readers who may appreciate when it’s there but can very easily overlook a lack of spatial awareness because I… do not have very much of it.

    And yet I also keep realizing things like how weird it must be to be tall. Except that of course tall people are used to it. I suspect that if I got back to writing more, I’d end up either missing important details on that score (like the book somebody was talking about that lost them because the supposedly tall male POV character was having experiences that clearly belonged to somebody in a short body) or overemphasizing them (I can’t place them properly, but I feel like there are a few things I’ve read recently that repeatedly highlighted something that seemed like the character would be used to it — not like throwing in “this is how vehicles work” for the reader, more as if I were diligently writing a tall person noticing how far away the ground was and how easily he could reach stuff).

    But I seem to keep running into things about physicality lately that blow my mind, even though it feels like they shouldn’t. Like suddenly noticing how somebody I’ve known all my life who’s only about three inches taller than me has more additional reach than that because, of course, her arms are also proportionately longer. Or a baffling discussion of why a particular type of supported squat was supposed to be easier, which brought me to the bewildering realization that some people apparently have a center of gravity that stays higher than their knees in a deep squat.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. My sister is distinctly taller than me when standing and only a little when sitting down.

        It was more amusing in our teens, before she finished her growth spurt: I was taller sitting down, and she was, standing up.


    1. The one that’s getting to me is that suddenly, I can actually throw things into a basket across the room. Started when I was about 35.

      9 times out of ten, it actually goes in, even if I didn’t aim very hard.

      Since when I was a teen I once spent three hours a day, for a solid week, practicing to be able to get the ball through the basket one time in four– this is an incredible change.

      Maybe your “spatial awareness” is just finally getting ripe?

      Liked by 1 person

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