As the only fantasy Deb this year, I’ve been looking forward to the topic of worldbuilding since, well, we first started. This is my jam, my butter, my easily spreadable confection of choice. Some people say worldbuilding is hard, but I can’t seem to stop. All it takes is a seed and a little water and it all but grows itself.
The seed for Ghadid was a line in a book:
“In the middle of the twentieth century, for reasons no one has fully understood, the dunes came to Arawan, and began to roll inexorably through the town.”
I’d already written a good chunk of what would become Book Two, the Impossible Contract when I came across that line. While I was writing, I was also researching, pulling every book the university library had on deserts and desert life. I lived in a desert at the time – the Sonoran desert, which covers Southern Arizona in prickly pear and saguaros – and I’d already decided I wanted to set my next story in a desert. Sahara by Marq de Villiers supplied the line above and the rest quickly snowballed from there. Or perhaps I should say, the grains of ideas gathered and grew until they became a mound, became a hill.
Became a city.
Once you have that grain, the rest of worldbuilding is just a series of questions.
If dunes could smother a town, what could a town do to survive? Sweep it away bucket by bucket was the answer in Arawan, but what if the town used stilts, like on the coasts? And then if the dunes left the town behind, what would that look like? Ghadid was my answer, a city built on pylons deep in the desert. Isolation would keep it safe from bandits, from foreign powers, from what had happened to the rest of the world – for a while, at least.
They’d need water to sustain a city, but that had an easier solution than I’d expected: beneath the Sahara lie vast, untapped aquifers. So what if, within the pylons that supported this city, were pumps that could tap those aquifers?
But aquifers would eventually run out, so there needed to be a way to replenish them. I borrowed the short but violent monsoon season from the Sonoran desert to refill the aquifers, which in turn lent itself to a natural fiscal year. Wait what, I can hear you saying already.
Oh yes, I skipped over that part. To keep water people from using up all the water right away, water allocation is tied to their monetary system. The coins in Ghadid are ultimately used in the pumps to get water, but they’re also exchanged for goods and services and doled out by the leaders to their people. And that has all sorts of fun implications that I’m just going to skip over for now because wow I could be here for days.
But that’s just the thing with worldbuilding: all it takes is that seed, and then a hundred questions of how and why and what if.
I asked: how can a city avoid being subsumed by dunes?
(Raise it up.)
Then I asked how can a city sustain itself in isolation?
(By creating its own eco-system.)
What can they grow?
(Drought- and heat-tolerant plants!)
How can they grow it?
(In spaces carefully constructed to keep in as much moisture as possible, but that also allow for heat mitigation.)
What goods and services do they provide that would be worth others traveling across a vast and dangerous desert for?
(Amazing glasswork and a place to replenish supplies on the way to the salt flats.)
What is important to them? What is sacred? What is profane?
And so on and so on and so on. It’s easy to get lost in the details and it’s easy to never stop. And I haven’t stopped worldbuilding, honestly. Even now, while I’m putting the finishing touches on the third and final book, I’m still asking questions.
What happens now?
Where do they go from here?
When can I return?