Okay—I was not on the excellent panel on World Building at RWA, but someone asked a question at the panel that didn’t really get answered. At the end of the session, I moseyed on up to her, and gave her the answer I arrived at, mostly just by writing AU stuff myself. When Mary Calmes asked me what the answer was, I told her, and she got pretty excited.
“You must tell people this!”
“Why? So they can fall asleep?”
“Don’t be stupid. This is important stuff.”
“This is basic stuff that I’m sure everyone has thought of.”
“I will beat you. I will. Just write it up in a column or something, okay?”
“Yeah yeah yeah. Is there anywhere in Atlanta where you can get a Diet Coke?”
“Squirrel!” she said, rolling her eyes. Because she gets me, and that was the end of the conversation. Until now. When I’m going to share my advice with the two people who read this column.
The secret to building a world is the secret to stubbing your toe in the middle of the night.
I shit you not.
So, imagine this. It’s the middle of the night, and you roll out of bed (what kind of bed? Is it made of rushes? Stuffed with ticking? Electromagnetically elevated pockets of air? The equivalents of dead marsupials? What?) and you walk down a darkened hallway. (What would normally light the hallway? Photosynthetic lichens? Radioactive feral wombats with glowing eyes? Inefficient electric lamps? Three moons through a stone window? You decide.) You are on your way to the bathroom (and the possibilities here are endless—there have been bathrooms around since 7000 B.C. Egypt, so don’t let the historically ignorant talk you out of an indoor place to pee for an AU setting) and you stub your toe.
What do you say?
This is really important. Pay attention. What do you say?
Okay—this implies that you believe in a higher deity, but not a nice fuzzy one, one that can damn something, and probably some sort of punishment or a universe of punishment, so there’s a hell involved. If you’re society is futuristic science fiction, has this concept carried over from the colony of origin? Either way, you just established a humongous assumption in your universe, and if you don’t want it to be a god, you want it to be a goddess or science or something, you’ve got to choose another swear word.
So your universe believes in hell. Awesome. What’s that like? Loneliness? Ice? Fire? Corruption? Being stuck watching Cartoon Network with no alcohol, knitting, or LSD? What is the belief system of hell where you are at—it’s embedded in your flesh enough to be spit out in the dark hours of the night when you’re in pain, it must exist.
Okay, so fornication is an issue in your universe—it’s an animalistic act that has been made into an oath or a swear word. Are there positive contexts in which sex is mentioned? What are the words used there? If you make up another word, where has it evolved from?
So your community shames basic body functions, does it? Or is actual excrement just that unpleasant? Has this word, too, evolved from a singular meaning to an all encompassing one? If this is in the future, do people deal with actual excrement, or do they get the pleasant enema bath in the morning? If this is in the past, is this a word children can say? Does it have a different form? (“Shite” for example, was a perfectly acceptable word in the lower classes for quite a while. All barnyard animals did it, nobody got excited about it, and how did you warn someone not to step in it if you couldn’t say it?)
Well, uhm, yeah. You get the picture.
See, the thing to remember is this.
We did not just wake up one day and have swearwords. Many of our most reviled words came from a complex collision of historical circumstances. In 1066, William the Conqueror came knocking on London’s big wooden gates and said, “Let me in, heathens, I’m here to rule you!” King Harald the Luckless (my own personal epithet) looked up into the sky and said, “Oh help me, God, what shall I do!” and caught an arrow in the throat, and William said, “Thanks, God, I knew you were on our side!”
Well, what followed was about 500 years of Anglo-Saxon oppression. The Anglo-Saxons spoke a language very much like German, and the Normans spoke a language very much like French. The Anglo-Saxons were on the bottom of the social ladder, the Normans were at the top.
The Anglo-Saxons said fuck, shit, piss, cock, cunt and ass, and the Normans said fornication, defecation, urination, penis, vagina, and derriere.
After five-hundred years and a giant vowel shift, the two languages expanded like an accordion to become the one English we currently speak—but the words of the lower classes? Those were the words you didn’t speak in polite company.
After another 500 years, they were the words you didn’t say in polite company.
In fact, you only really said them in the bedroom, in the barnyard, or when you were stubbing your toe in the dark.
This example can be extended, of course. You finish going to the bathroom, what do you use to clean yourself with? You walk down the hall into the kitchen, where do you keep your food? What do you eat? Where did it come from? What trade routes and levels of agri-technology does that imply? What’s good for a midnight snack in the world you’ve created? Where do you sit down to eat your furtive course of Gonadal Plums (or whatever you’re eating on this world at dark-thirty a.m.) and how do you see to wash up? What dietary needs to Gonadal Plums satisfy, and are they different than the regular human ones that plain old regular plums meet? Eventually, when your characters have completed the course of their day, you will see the basic human necessities of their world—but the human necessities do not always reveal the hidden assumptions and belief systems that our world sits on, and that we don’t even notice beneath our feet.
No—those are the ideas that come out in the middle of the night, when the oldest words come out to play.
It’s important to listen when they do.