How Many Sheep Can Graze on One Hill Anyway?

There are a lot of worldbuilding sites out there for writers and gamers alike.  Many seem to favor incredible detail, or claim that massive detail is required in worldbuilding.  They seem to want to turn writers into: geologists, biologists, climatologists, linguists, anthropologists, oceanographers, theologians, etc.

I look at a lot of these sites and wonder why.  On one hand, I suppose there’s the fact that we see the highly detailed fictional worlds of our predecessors and wish to emulate them.  However, I think most don’t realize that the majority of these worlds grew over time, as needed, often haphazardly, and/or really cover a small geographic area.  We look, for instance, at Middle Earth (which grew over the course of decades, while Tolkien was writing his novels and after they were “done”), Narnia (which seems to have grown as Lewis needed it), or Steven Brust’s Dragaera (which is continually growing and being fleshed out).  Then there are the Star Wars and Star Trek universes, or Krynn (Dragonlance) and Toril (Forgotten Realms), where teams of people have been paid to develop the worlds over the course of decades (versus one person, who is not getting paid to build the world).

This may, I guess, be one reason there seem to be so few standalone novels in the fantasy genre today (aside from the sales side of things), why virtually every new writer out there has a first book subtitled “Book One of the <insert name> Cycle/Trilogy/Whatever”.  After spending a decade building the world before writing novel #1, I can see wanting to get your time’s worth.

In the old days, say before the mid-90s, this devotion to detail seems to be the exception rather than the rule.  There seems to have been less worldbuilding time.  Writers didn’t seem to care about the price of sheep in Upper Fantastan’s effect on the grain prices in Midland or the fact that the mountains on Earth don’t form horseshoes (Tolkien).   Along with that, a writer commonly produced dozens of novels, hundreds of stories in hundreds of worlds (see Fritz Leiber for an extreme example—he had fantasy, SF, horror, and mystery novels, all in different settings, except for his three Lanhkmar anthologies).

Certainly authors like Larry Niven, Tanith Lee, Anne McCaffery, and Mercedes Lackey were, and in some cases still are, creating significantly detailed settings.  But, they have done so over the course of decades of novels in the same setting that are still largely standalone, with different characters, exploring different parts or time periods of the world.  Robert A. Heinlein and Harry Turtledove are great examples of the Leiber-like spread of work.  I can’t recall any two Heinlein books set in the same “world” and Turtledove only produced a few series with a wide range of standalones set in a variety of worlds between them.

Perhaps the devotion to detail practiced by so many writers and editors or publishers reflects a lost sense of fantasy in favor of a view that a somewhat slavish realism must be everywhere.

I’ll close out with a Terry Pratchett quote (despite this quote, I do like maps):

“You can’t map a sense of humor.  Anyway, what is a fantasy map but a space beyond which There Be Dragons?” (The Colour of Magic; 19 years and 28 Discworld novels later, Sir Terry decided that maps could be useful)

3 comments on “How Many Sheep Can Graze on One Hill Anyway?

  1. lordtaltos says:

    On reflection, I think for gamers the shift toward massive detail/realism came with the creation of Dragon Magazine and the need to fill its pages with content. From what I can recall of the early issues, it’s the second year or so that articles about “realistic” dragon hunting grounds, realism in economies, and the like start to appear.


  2. calmgrove says:

    Another approach is to create a universe with related worlds only linked by an overarching concept, like the Ekumen in Ursula Le Guin’s novels. Each world has its own geography (she loves her maps: there is a selection on her website) and habitats and cultures which she can sketch in or detail as suits the story, but she doesn’t need to create an all-encompassing timeline to make it all tie up neatly, tickety-boo.


    • lordtaltos says:


      Of course, that creates the SF or multiverse fun of creating several to theoretically infinite cultures. 🙂

      Caught “John Carter” over the weekend and thought about E. R. Burroughs’ somewhat minimalist culture building – e.g. large cities on an arid world, lots of fabric and a fair amount of wood on a world without fields or forests, etc. – ultimately, where the wood, etc came from was unimportant for the story.


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