Worldbuilding: The Back of the Book

Okay, who else likes a good glossary with their fiction? Or even better, that and a bibliography?

Long story short, sometimes writing a good story is like writing a really, really cool For Want of a Nail fanfic. You find one, or better yet several, tiny cracks in “it was this way” that lean toward “it could have been that other way”, and use them like a free-climber to swarm up an impossible cliff, and leave everyone cheering about how utterly cool that was. But to do that, you have to find the cracks.

And that takes research. Oh so much research.

Note, I’m not complaining. A lot of texts on history, culture, art, and biology are absolute gems to read. (Sometimes it feels like they’re just as pricey, too, but there you go.) It’s time-consuming and sometimes a headache, but nailing down How X Worked and finding little facts about it you never knew before are my idea of fun.

(Yes, writers are weird.)

Thing is, though, if you’re reading a heavily-researched book, sometimes you want more than what the author puts in the text. Sometimes you want to know what the sources are so you can back-check it yourself – either because you think they are Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, or because you think they’ve got a great take on things and you want to know what info they used to get it.

With an urban fantasy or contemporary romance, you may not need any sources. However, if you’re doing alternate or fantastic history….

Actually, if you’re doing any history. We don’t know what the past was like exactly, we just approximate it based off the best evidence we have and some sophisticated wild guesses. So. If your book leans toward historical, you might attract people who read history in nonfiction forms, and they would probably appreciate knowing what you’re digging into to build your world.

…Possibly so they can laugh and mock, but hey.

Glossaries are also good, particularly when you may be using a lot of not-familiar-to-most terms in the text. For example most people who read this blog have probably heard of chi, qi, and ki, but they may be less familiar with the Korean term for “life force” – gi. So into the glossary it goes, with notes that these are all words for the same concept; just Chinese, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. The readers can pick out for themselves which characters use which version, and draw conclusions accordingly. Similarly, wokou, wako, waegu. All mean pirates, in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, respectively. Who uses what term is significant. Readers can likely get a feel for that reading the text, but if they have a glossary to turn to, they can check that suspicion and get an “aha!” about who that character is, what language they think in, and where they call home.

It’s the thrill of discovery, of finding out there’s more to the story if you want to go looking for it. And it can be so cool.

Plus, there’s just something amusingly Mad Scientist-ish about standing atop a pile of references and laughing maniacally. Mwah-ha-hah!


23 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: The Back of the Book

  1. OTOH I have seen glossaries of foreign terms where there is an easy modern equivalent, because the author wanted the characters to sound foreign even though the characters were speaking plain language from the point of view character’s perspective….

    Writing is a juggling act.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It depends how close the “modern equivalent” is to the foreign term. There are some terms that *seem* to be equivalent, but then aren’t for a whole lot of reasons. Very often for philosophical or religious differences.

      One of my favorite (and most aggravating) is 心 (“xin/shin/kokoro” in Chinese/Japanese). It *literally* means “heart”… but it also carries with it the idea of “mind” and even the metaphorical/philosophical idea of “core/center”. Sometimes I’ll even see it talked about as heart-and-mind to differentiate it from both concepts as English doesn’t really combine those “parts” of a person’s soul like some other languages do.

      How it’s translated varies a lot as a result. Some works go with “heart”. Others go with “mind”. Knowing what other concepts are wrapped up in it is *very* helpful for understanding why so many conflicts in shonen are about the state of a person’s “heart”. It’s *a lot* more than just what their “heart” is like, it’s also about what the “core” of a person’s being is. And fighting is very often how people see which other person’s “core” is stronger.

      I’ll very often specifically go look up what term is getting used in those situations to see if it’s this term or not (most of the time it is), because the English concept of “heart” just… doesn’t fit what is actually happening on a philosophical level.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. You made it that far? I gave up after Book 1. Same with GoT.

        The sad thing is that I really really like long books, but I only have so much tolerance for them if nothing is really happening. If it’s all “mindless violence and plotting that makes no sense” or “nothing has happened,” I give up on them.

        I actually have more tolerance for ridiculously long webnovels.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I actually read the entire main series (couldn’t get into the final part, written by Sanderson), because while there were definite annoyances (all the characters were jerks of one degree or another, and a very large percentage of the problems in that world were directly attributable to everyone blaming everyone else and creating self-fulfilling prophecies of “you’re going to make a problem”) it was a treasure trove of “interesting ideas” for worldbuilding, all smushed together in one place. Really, it was more like an old author had pulled out his bucket of lost worldbuilding/plot ideas and thrown them all together and called it a new book… but with enough editing to somehow manage to make most of them actually make sense as fitting in the same setting.


  2. Having the glossary also makes re-reading more fun, because if you (like me) don’t like flipping back and forth but will read the glossary at the end, then go back and re-read… suddenly you have more context! In a way, if you have a high amount of non-English (in your English-language book) then I feel a glossary is almost required – especially if you have full sentences of not-English. But be careful, because if you’re using a real language instead of a made up con language, you might betray your use of Google translate… 😛

    Glossaries are also fun. Not only do you see where the author got the information, you can also see Cool Books that you can also use for your own thing, just in a different way.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Glossaries and bibliographies aren’t the only things that can go in the appendices. Tolkien had entire histories, and “what was happening with that plot thread that got cut from the main story because it wasn’t seen directly by the MCs” in his, which was fun. And in the Archives of Anthropos (Narnia-inspired series, with even _more_ extreme allegory) by John White, the appendices contain both dictionary-style glossary with pronunciation guide (with its heavy allegory, _every name was meaningful_, including words used to label stuff in the world rather than just people, and if you knew Hebrew and Greek you could figure out a lot of it) and worldbuilding “guides” to various things (in the one I have open right now, that’s an essay on dragon fighting, covering basic details of dragons, common mistakes and common tactics against them, and why those might or might not work, which explains choices made by the characters in the story that).

    Liked by 3 people

      1. I should note that, like Narnia, the series is written “out of order”, and is best read multiple times so as to see each order it can go in.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. In the appendices, you learn of other good consequences from The Hobbit in LOTR. The Dale and Laketown were attacked during the War of the Ring, and the humans took refuge in the mountain. Now imagine what would have happened had they been caught between the orcs and the dragon instead. . . .

      Liked by 1 person

  4. If the writer has a website or blog (and is indie), that would be a good place for bibliographies. But of course not everybody has a blog or a website, these days, and blogs and websites won’t be around forever. So it’s kind of a juggling act, I guess.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. The manga Dr. Stone has a bibliography at the end of every volume. Interestingly, the references aren’t for the chemistry and engineering that take place in the story. Instead, they’re mostly survival guides, and books that discuss how society would rebuild after an apocalypse. This tells me a lot about what the author was already familia with, and what he felt the need to research.

    Liked by 5 people

      1. Of course!

        You’ve got me thinking ahead, to if I ever manage to get a story finished, just putting my bibles up on my book-promotion site.


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