Posted in Be My Guest

James Calbraith Talks World-Building

James Calbraith Talks World-Building Posted on March 19, 2013Leave a comment


I was asked to describe how I created the world of “The Shadow of Black Wings”. The setting in my books is always one of the main characters, so this task is close to my heart.

The world in “The Shadow…” is an alternative version of history, set in an equivalent of the middle of our 19th century. I chose that period because of the story I wanted to tell – the end of Shogunate in Japan, and opening of this country to the West. Once the date was set, one thing was obvious: middle of 19th century must have some Steampunk in it. It would have been a wasted opportunity otherwise.

So I had steam, Japan, Victorian England (where the main hero comes from) – and Dragons, simply because there have to be dragons. That was the base for building the world.


1. The Differences

Although having dragons and steam powered flying machines may seem like the main difference between our world and that of the book, to me as the world builder there were two other decisions which made the world really stand out from the beginning: 1) the Roman Empire still exists and 2) Christianity and Islam have never developed.

Neither of these is very visible to the reader at first. There are vague mentions of Rome and its strange religion, but these facts don’t seem that important in the story. However, in terms of world-building, the difference is fundamental.

Although perhaps not as fundamental as the fact that there is magic.


2. History

Writing down the history of a fictional world is what I like doing best. If I could get paid for that, it would have been my dream job. Over the years, I created dozens of such histories, vast majority of them confined to the desk drawers and, later, forgotten folders on my PC.

It was the same in this case. I started with the two above assumptions, and a few starting conditions, and went on from there.

You can read a simplified timeline on my website. If you know your history, you will notice that, in places, my version matches our world pretty closely. This was deliberate; I needed my world to have a vaguely familiar feeling, with just enough difference to make it fun to read (and write).

Since I was writing an alternative history, and could do pretty much what I wanted, I used it extensively to change it “for the better” from the point of view of the story. Though real history is fun as it is, I could’ve made it even more fun by righting a few historical “wrongs”. A Scandinavian-speaking elite in Russia? The English winning the battle of Hastings? Independent Wales? All these things can be real in an alternate history book – as long as the rest of the story is internally consistent.


3. Dragons

Every writer who puts dragons into our world should ask themselves a question: how would the existence of the beasts change the course of history? If dragons were bred by humans, how would they develop? Where do the dragons come from, and why are they in different colours?

Writing down the dragon lore was another bit of world building I did in spare time. Some of it can be seen on my website – and I hope to one day publish an encyclopaedia of my dragons, time permitting. I had to create different breeds and races for the book, and once I started explaining why there were so many and what they were used for, more pieces of world-building puzzle started falling into place.


4. Map and place-names.

Since my world is just a slightly different version of ours, most of the places exist in both universes. Changing the place names to fit the history and the general feel of the story was one of the first thing I did prior to writing: I actually had a table of substitutions made, to make sure I don’t mix up my Huatings and my Fan Yus.

The place names are mostly authentic historical names for the cities and rivers; as a rule of thumb, I tried to use the names from around 6th-8th centuries. The exception to that is Japan, where many cities in 19th century still bore their original names. So Edo (modern Tokyo) is still “Edo”, while Nagasaki is “Kiyo”.

Having the map drawn by a professional map-maker was an important step to fleshing out the world properly. It’s one thing to look at your own scribbling, another to see the names and borders you came up with on a large, colourful picture. It helps you smooth out the details, make sure little things like travel times and weather are more accurate. A good map is not the result of the world building process – it’s a part of it.


In the end, the world building never ends. As long as the books are written, the world grows, both in time and in space. I can’t wait to see what events and places will I discover next!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *