. . . .is more than doing x-amount of research, or not doing research at all. The world must be "fully realized" rather than "partially thought through."
This is perhaps my main criticism of much "generic" fantasy: It isn't enough that the story is set in a "fantasy world;" both the reader and the author have to come to have a relationship with that world. The world has to be more than that generic fantasy world where people ride horses, use magic, light their way with candles, and live in stone houses.
For instance, let's examine those four characteristics of fantasy worlds.
1) people ride horses. Who can afford a horse? Who can afford to buy one? To stable one? To feed one oats? To protect that horse against, say, bandits or warlords who need more horses for their own use? So maybe not everybody has a horse. Maybe who has horses and who doesn't have horses begins to constitute rank differences in the society. If they all have horses, as most everyone in our society has a car, then you as the creator of the world are simply shoving 20th Century expectations onto a world that isn't shaped economically or socially in the same way ours is.
2) people use magic. Does everyone have access to magic? What is the magic? Where does it come from? How do you learn to use it? Does it follow certain laws of physics? Is it prohibited or hoarded? Do powerful people, notorious for wanting to keep the power they hold, hoard magic for themselves or try to limit it in others?
3) light their way with candles. And just where do they get the candle wax, anyway? Who can afford it? Is wax part of the tithe a family has to pay to, say, the church or the lord of the manor? Are there other ways of lighting one's way, torches, oil? Do most people just go to bed with the sun because they're too poor to have access to candles?
4) live in stone houses. In fact, stone castles were not a part of the medieval landscape until the high middle ages; 11th c motte and bailey castles were mostly built of timber; and before that forts would be timber and/or earthworks;might even be periods in specific regions, such as late Carolingian, when many palaces and other sites weren't fortified. This all tells us something about those cultures. As for stone houses; detached single family dwelling son the model of the generic post-medieval rural village aren't necessarily a feature of the early medieval landscape; in the north you might have seen longhouses, built of timber. In a tree-poor region you would have seen stone houses (Skara Brae in the Orkneys) and in tree rich regions stone houses would come later and be a mark of prosperity; or stones would have been more useful in fences to mark field boundaries. In addition,size of villages, layout of villages, was there a manor in association with the village, diff between village and town, size of cities, and evidence for palisades, sometimes for defense sometimes for livestock, as well as what kind of land the villages were built around. All needs to be taken into consideration.
With such a brief consideration of complex subjects, we're already adding complexity.
1) Don't assume.
2) Figure out the right questions to ask.
Don't assume that modern American suburban life gives us the pattern for past cultures--orfor future ones: i.e. the Housewives of Mars or the chocolate-chip-cookie-baking sorceress.
Figure outthe right questions to ask: general and rather bland descriptions dilute the impact of the plot and make it hard to "see" the world and to understand and / or identify with the characters. The characters function within the world (or opposed to it) and if the world isn't defined then the characters will never be. "suburban mindsets in fancy clothing." This is not to say, I might add, that "modern mindsets" in "fancy dress" can't make for delightful fantasy reading. It can, and does. But that's its own sub-species of genre fantasy and has, no doubt, its own set of problems in writing it successfully.
Details give us insight into the world. Here are some examples of what I consider good use of detail:
"When they woke in the cold before dawn, she made a small fire and heated a pan of water to make oatmeal gruel for the child and herself . . . . Goha cooled the pan in the dewy grass so that the child could hold it and drink from it." [From Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin]
"So he woke by a brass alarm clock that stood on four feet and had a bell atop it that two clappers struck alternately, as though it were beating its brains out.It was so loud that the first moments of its ringing didn't even seem like,but like something else, a calamity, he was awake and sitting up before he understood what it was: the clock, hollering and walking on its feet across the bureau top." [From Aegypt by John Crowley]
"Round Cerr Cawnen the meadows lay marshy, crossed by a thousand streams, most no more than rivulets, and dotted with pools and bogs. With his face and hands lard-smeared to keep the black flies from biting, Jah do picked his way through the high grass to hunt for brook lime and colt's foot." [From Days of Blood and Fire by Katharine Kerr]
These tell us something about the world we're now inhabiting.
Consider, now,a chamber described as "large" and "rectangular." It contains maps and piles of books, a large conference table, and a desk. So far this could be any office in any time period from the present back to the late Middle Ages. It is lit by candles, however, so this suggests the kingdom doesn't have electricity -- or that its occupant is eccentric. The judicious use of other, more particular details will reveal clues to us about the kind of society we're inhabiting.
If a character inhabiting this chamber is then described as wearing black pants and a plain black shirt, that detail tells the reader almost nothing about the place or the culture -- although it, and the neat desk, tell us a little bit about the man himself: austere, perhaps, without much time for trifles,and efficient at his work? It's easier to show how a person's personal taste reflects his/her character when that taste is embedded in a larger cultural milieu -- and for that, there must be a larger cultural milieu.
A reader has no point of reference in a fantasy world except that which the writer gives her/him. This means that the writer must create all those points of reference in order for the world to come alive and for the characters to have some kind of "solid" ground to walk on.
Now we get into the Right Questions to Ask. What level of technology does this place have? Clothing? Social structure? Political structure? Each of these questions should spawn a hundred more.
I don't mean to suggest that this world should reflect or be modeled on one of our historical periods, only that it must have one that is self consistent and that is evident in the manuscript. As a for instance, do most well-to-do men in this culture wear cravats? Does our austere hero eschew cravats, or only wear a simply-tied one? Are books a usual part of this world? Are most people literate? Is writing controlled by a few? How well-educated is the dashing heroine?
The reader doesn't necessarily need to know all this information, and certainly not in the first twenty pages, but the author must because all the knowledge the author has leaks out in small and subtle ways in the choices she makes of what detail to set down on the page at this moment, which one is most important, and in her envisioning of the world at large. By making the details matter they then reveal much more about the world, and the world itself comes alive and draws the reader in.
This is, by the way, not quite the same thing as "world building" -- that process by which a writer fills a notebooks with details, kingdom lists, genealogies,geographical features and so on and so forth. A "world" that a writer has spent hours / days / months / years world building will not necessarily be fully realized on the page for various reasons:
*Lack of language to get the world on the page;
* Failure of imagination / use of cliches;
* Not asking the right questions and/or making too many assumptions (see the House wives of Mars or the complete lack of "Golden Age" sci-fi to predict the Pill or even think that anything comparable might happen -- most of them didn't even consider asking questions about the future of gender roles);
How language is used to intensify the fully realized world
I myself prefer language that isn't overdone with "purple prose," but on the other hand,sometimes the language can be too sparse, sometimes repetitive especially in the matter of verb choice and sentence structure, and hindered by the use of very general adjectives instead of specific ones that would give the reader flashes of vivid color.
It's not that one has to use lurid language to be colorful, rather that the writer needs to know exactly what it is s/he is describing.
It's better to simply describe "a spacious chamber cluttered with books and scattered paper" than to describe it in more detail with words that don't really tell us anything outside the very general. The chamber described above could, as I've said, be anywhere, any when. What we need to know is why this place is different from any we've been to before -- and the language used to describe it will help reveal that to the reader.
In addition, don't shy away from letting the reader experience your main character's emotions. A like able protagonist with whom the reader can identify is one of the most (if not THE most) important ingredients of a successful genre novel; each glimpse we get into her heart of hearts will likely make us like her more and want to stick with her story -- that is, with the book.
It is this combination of a fully-realized world and the language that brings that world alive that makes fantasy so wonderful and, when it comes down to it, makes it possible for many fantasy novels whose plots are fairly similar to that much-maligned 'standard' fantasy novel to be successful each in their own way.
Fantasy is about landscape, the landscape of the imagination, of the heart, of that which is experienced as wonderful, or gruesome, or thrilling, or comforting.I believe that the best fantasy creates a landscape which seems almost as real to the reader as the one we ourselves inhabit.