Here's an excerpt from the story I started writing the other day:
"Will we raft?" she asked eagerly. She loved seeing farmers and woodwrights rafting down the river, boxes and bundles piled high, their lizards sprawled lazy in the sun or snapping bugs out of the evening air. Wood was so scarce downriver, and the current so fierce, that they sold their rafts as well as their goods and then rode their lizards home. Ah Jeru's lizard Boleferon--a barbarous name that he claimed had once belonged to a king on the other side of the mountains--was old, older even than Ah Mete the village elder, but still strong, and she imagined he could carry both of them back with little trouble.
I didn't make up the pieces of this. There are lizards that live for dozens of years--squamates such as Komodo dragons can live up to 50 years in the wild, and crocodilians may occasionally crack the century mark--and are big enough to ride on if you can tame and saddle them. (Taming large carnivorous animals can be a bit of a chore, but they're no more dangerous than your average horse
, less likely to kick or trample you and more likely to bite off a finger or two.) As for the rafting, that's from Lewis Mumford's mention in The City in History
of Herodotus writing about Babylon:
His account would be precious, even if it only told us how chunks of bitumen, so useful in waterproofing, were carried by a tributary stream into the Euphrates, and thus floated down to Babylon, or how the traders bringing casks of palm wine had used the traditional round raft, of bound reeds, with ribs of willow, covered with skins, to bring goods to the city; after which they would sell the ribs--wood was valuable on the treeless plain--pack the hides on a donkey they had carried aboard with them, and go back overland to the hills whence they came, since the swift current of the Euphrates did not permit them to pole back upstream.
Mumford also has great little tidbits like this:
Frankfort, digging in Ur, Eshnunna, and Khafaje, which flourished about 2000 B.C., found that the houses numbered about twenty to the acre, which gave a density, he calculated, of from 120 to 200 people per acre, a density certainly in excess of what was hygienically desirable, but no worse than that of the more crowded workmen's quarters in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century: in both cases perhaps offset by the presence of canals. ...[T]he small houses found in Mohenjo-Daro, from about the middle of the third millenium B.C., were two stories high and about thirty by twenty-seven feet: about the same size as a modest house in Greek Priene about 200 B.C.... Neither would have seemed out of place in the East End of London in the eighteenth century.... [Homes of the wealthy] range from houses of ten rooms, from 85 by 56 feet to 97 by 72 feet, in Eshnunna, Babylon, Assur, and Olynthos, to many-roomed palaces. These figures cover a period that spans about two thousand years and includes four well-differentiated cultures.
I haven't said it in a while, so let me just say here that this book is essential for anyone designing cities as part of serious detailed worldbuilding. Even if you don't break out the graph paper and make sure that all your middle-income homes are about 900 square feet per floor (which, you'll note, is a not unreasonable size for a two-storey home today
, just as it was four or five thousand years ago in Mohenjo-Daro), reading it will give you better instincts about cities. You'll start thinking about sewage and drainage, about farms and parks, about walls and moats and the absolute necessity of rivers. Research will burn new paths in your brain, and when you wander down those paths you might be surprised at what you find.
The nice thing about writing fantasy, as skzbrust
just pointed out
, is that you can say "What if?" in all sorts of ways. You can wonder "What if big lizards were beasts of burden?". You can wonder "What if there was a type of wood that became incredibly strong and hard after being soaked in salt water?" (incidentally, wood planked boat decks should be washed daily with salt water to keep the wood swollen, making a tighter seam between planks, and protect against fungal rot
). You can wonder "What if a culture didn't use fire?". You can wonder "What if there was an island populated by an experimental gift-economy commune of Asian Amish sentient amphibians?". If you're not me, you've probably never actually
wondered that, but now you know I'm wondering it for you, so you don't have to. *) And you'll wonder these things because you'll read about the real world, this amazing crazy world we live in right now, about its past or its present, a place far away or in your back yard, and you'll realize you never have to wonder "What if there were yellow jacket nests the size of cars popping up all over southern Alabama?"
because it's already happened
. The world does all the work of worldbuilding for you. It gives you all the pieces, like chopsticks and base twelve and sun tea and knot-based writing systems
and half-blind wormlike bright yellow amphibians that exude poison and have tasty nutritious skin designed to be consumed by their newly hatched young
. You just get to find fun ways to put those pieces together.
I've set aside Friday nights to work on fiction. Weekly writing time! How decadent! I'm really looking forward to it; cobbling together crazy new worlds from pieces of this crazy old world is some of the most fun I've ever had.
(And yes, Boleferon, the steed named after a far-away king, is a reference to Bellerophon
and his own famous steed. The past has given me a lot; I try to give back where I can.)
EDIT: In other news, topographic maps of rivers
are so hot I may need to go change my underwear. *fanfan* Goodness.