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I like writing fantasy and I like world building but I've been wondering lately if the effort of creating a new world is worth it, particularly for single volume stories.
I've been contemplating this both as I ready my novel, Weaver of Dreams, for publication and as I embark on the next phase of development for my world building app.
World building is a crucial part of any story telling no matter what genre you write though if you write something other than fantasy or science fiction you probably call it research.
The majority of fantasy worlds are analogues of our historical past. As the late Sara Douglas noted the most successful in the genre are basically alternatives to our own world. Raymond E. Feist echoes the sentiment stating that his Riftwar books are essentially works of historical fiction set on another planet. The continents may look different but not much else does apart from the fantastical creatures and the presence of magic. It's not necessarily a bad thing and likely it's what most readers of fantasy expect.
So what we usually default to is a quasi mediaeval Europe with some extras thrown in. When its done well it provides a good story backdrop but often the result is a glaring clash of real-world cultures, concepts and technology that don't fit the period or geography.
When I started world building I did the same, essentially starting with my own cultural heritage (Celtic Britain) and slapping on things I liked about other cultures and places that I learnt about from general reading or when I was studying history at university . The good thing is that you are free to do what you want (though you usually end out following the tried and tested clichés of the genre). It's easy, you get a lot of stuff for free and it's much easier than writing historical fiction where critical readers can quickly work out if you've done your home work or not.
But the problem as I noted above is that it's too easy to slap ideas together with little respect for internal logic or the cultures you cherry pick. Good world building on the scale of Tolkien is very tough and it's easy to see the appeal of taking short cuts even at the expense of a believable world.
Taken together, I've asked my self why not simply write historical fantasy and be honest about it? There's a lot of good fantasy out there set in the real world both past and present with Harry Potter, the Dresden Files and various Arthurian stories coming to mind.
I quite like the idea of taking a watershed event but with a radically different outcome that alters world events. as for magic, there's no harm on including it. until only a few centuries ago people very much believed in and greatly feared magical power, even if that magic was a metaphor for nature or a woman's sexual power or a king's divine right of rule.
But is that self defeating for a fantasist? Creating a world gives you a sandbox you can control and potentially a setting you can build a lasting career on. Moreover it gives you the chance to make your mark on the genre beyond the influence of a single story.
At the same time such a world can become a millstone. The world itself can define your career and you may find it very hard to break away from it and try something else, especially if you stay in the same genre. This is especially true for traditionally published writings whose editors will tell them, quite rightly, their world is an inseparable part of their brand.