I was recently asked about how I developed the world for the Fallen Blade books and what tools I used to keep track of that development.. This is my answer to that question
I built the bones of the Fallen Bladeworld twenty years ago, wrote a novel and-a-half in it, and then set aside, so some of the details are fuzzy at this point.
When I first laid it out, I started with the idea of familiar-dependent magic. I’ve always liked familiars, but in general I think they haven’t had as deep an impact on their mages as they ought. That’s where the two part magic/familiar system came from. Then I spent a bunch of time trying to figure what the various ramification of that were just on the mage/familiar partners and what the the failure modes and strange combinations might look like.
Then I put together the original rough map and started thinking about culture and history and cultural history and migration patterns and place names and cultural cross currents. I wrote an 18 page magic system supplement for the world that worked with the Warhammer role-playing system.
As I was writing the first book I ran a campaign in the Fallen Blade (then Assassin Mage) world to play test some of my thinking. There is no better why to find the holes in a magic system than to game it with a bunch of rules lawyer role-players. I had to give that trial type up eventually as it draws on the same part of my brain and creativity as writing and I really can’t manage both given my schedule these days.
After I wrote the first novel I wrote a couple of shorts in the places in the world that had particularly odd mage/familiar interaction. Then I wrote about 1/3 of a novel in the non-human southlands where magic operates slightly differently—I really hope to get back there at some point. Through it all I kept track of stuff on the map, in a catch-all file labeled “assassin_mage_stuff.doc, and in a glossary.
Then I put it all aside for 20 years until my editor at Ace asked me if I wanted to try writing some more traditional fantasy. I said yes, went away for a bit and decided that the Assassin Mage world had some really spiffy pieces that I’d like to salvage. So I went ahead and built the Blades on the wreckage of the Assassin Mages and built the cultures of Tien, and the Magelands, and Varya which I’d only sketched out the first time. I also created the first pass at the pantheon, as religion was very important to Aral in a way it wasn’t to my original protagonists.
At that point, I started a new glossary, pulling across the stuff that overlapped from the old version, and building a lot of new stuff. I looked at Han China and late Republican Rome for Tien in terms of architecture and people and economies—I also grabbed other stuff from other places, but Rome and China are the core. I spent a lot of time thinking about the impact of magic on economies before I started actually writing and I created a monetary system when I hit the first Spinnerfish scene, because once you order food you need to know how much it’s worth and what the coinage is and all that stuff. Economics is critical for real depth.
Somewhere early in writing Broken Blade I decided I needed to have different days of the week and a calendar and that meant I needed to know something about seasons and axial tilt and the cultural history of the calendar because of the names of days and months. There, I borrowed heavily in my thinking from the history of the regulation of the calendar by the Pontifex Maximus in late Republican and early Imperial Rome.
The original world was quite strong on magic systems and the geography and ancient history weren’t bad, but in those days I didn’t know to think about economics of magic, or cultural bleed over borders, or that names oughtn’t be all linguistically neatened up due to that some cultural bleed and to borrowed words and historical remnants. I started with something that was culturally simplistic in much the same way that the Belgariad is, but time and deeper thinking after the original pass taught me a lot more about how those things have worked historically in our own world and how to apply that knowledge to creating a more realistic feeling fictional world.
The big takeaways for me from the process: For keeping track I have my glossary, a calendar, a monetary system, a catchall file for things like gesture, and my various plot outlines. Important things to think about for world: History, history, history, economic, cultural, technological. How does magic impact that? Is magic expensive or cheap, rare or plentiful, etc. Mine real history, blend eras and places, but make sure to do it carefully and to file off any serial numbers you don’t want showing.
Also, make some things radically different from your sources and original thinking. When I first set out to writer Bared Blade the Durkoth were leftovers from my Assassin Mage era and weren’t all that different from dwarves, but when I mentioned that to Lyda Morehouse she said “NO DWARVES” and she was absolutely right. So, if I’m not doing dwarves what do subteranean fey look like? Etc.