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Region-specific items?

Discussion in 'World Building' started by deilaitha, Jul 31, 2012.

  1. deilaitha

    deilaitha Sage

    Here is something I have been pondering (read: overanalyzing) for quite a while. I wonder if it is best to avoid region-specific items in a completely fictional fantasy universe.

    What do I mean by region-specific items? Certain products or materials which are not universally familiar.
    Silk (China)
    Porcelain (China)
    Coffee (Latin America, Africa/Arabia, Pacific islands)
    Chocolate (Latin America, equator belt)

    However, things like this are not specifically associated with a particular region:
    Cattle (or some form thereof)
    Goats, sheep
    Wheat (or some form of grain, though corn and rice might be excluded)
    Tea (not specifically the tea plant from China--people all around the world drink some form of plant steeped in hot water)
    Fleece, leather, or other animal based clothing materials
    Cotton, flax, or other types of high-fiber plants to spin into linens
    Gold, silver, other metals

    What do you think? Is the average reader going to be put off if a character drinks coffee in your fantasy novel? I know it would throw me for a loop. But what about silk or porcelain? Those kinds of things I could see slipping by more easily, as a reader--but as a writer then what does that do? Would you be able to use 'silken' as an adjective? Could you have oranges, cinnamon, or olives? What about relatively recently devoloped plants, such as corn or tomatoes? (not really developed as cash crops until the 1600s-1700s)

    Am I overanalyzing?
  2. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

    Pretty much all the large mammalian livestock you have named would be specific to the Old World (especially Africa and Eurasia), so pre-Columbian Native Americans wouldn't have them. Andean cultures would have llamas though.
  3. ShortHair

    ShortHair Sage

    The way I see it, you have three main options.

    One, continue your "overanalyzing." Research these real-world commodities, find out what climates and technologies support them, and translate them to your world. Don't forget to create the cultivation, manufacturing, transportation, and distribution networks while you're at it.

    Two, create your commodities from scratch. Ask yourself what the people in your world would wear, eat, drink, or use for any imaginable activity. Give your commodities exotic names. If you have any intellectual stamina left over, create a currency and an economic system unlike anything in our world.

    Three, write your story. Very few of your readers will care about all the hard work you put into the background. Add a few unusual touches (we are talking fantasy, after all), but don't spend a lot of time reinventing the wheel.
  4. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    By having region specific items you'll be able to refer to trade and export/import of such items. They could also serve as comparison between different standards of items: "Tea from far of Foreignia tastes much better than our local brew."
    I'm thinking this may serve to give the world a little bit more depth or sense of scale. You could tell of how ships travel the treacherous seas to bring exotic goods from far off lands. You may not even have to go into very much detail about where the different goods come from, it may be enough that your characters know and show a certain respect/reverence when handling or referring to the goods.
  5. Zero Angel

    Zero Angel Auror

    Hmm, I was not expecting this topic. I was going into it assuming you were coming up with region-specific items for your fantasy story, not using today's region-specific items. Is your setting set on Earth at some point in history, pre-history or the future? If so, then go ahead and analyze. Otherwise, go your own way and justify it however you like.

    You can easily work trade routes, caravans, imports, etc into a fantasy world. I have a race of fish-people that have a pretty good monopoly going for their trading houses that effectively brings goods anywhere to anywhere I want in the eastern hemisphere. I also have regions where they can't or won't go, and other caravans and trading routes. Trade is an important part of world-building in my opinion.
  6. Zophos

    Zophos Minstrel

    You run the risk of opening Pandora's box if you start getting too far into the weeds on answering specifically what commodities are available.

    For example, if you just took Medieval England as an example things like tomatoes, potatoes, hops (think ale v. beer), rabbits (up until the 12th century), etc. weren't even available. Meanwhile things like hemp, silk, and various forms of cotton were, though that may not seem intuitively obvious based on location. The availability of those things is regionally dependent, to a degree, but we haven't even gotten to other things that were regarded as off-limits like wild game and fish (harvesting things of that sort was the perogative of the manorial lord).

    In short, you can go as far down that path as you like, but you're quite likely to miss something. How you treat anything in a fantasy setting may require some suspension of belief whether you are talking about fairies and dragons or corn and barley. Decide for yourself what's available. Obviously, you have to set some limits because it wouldn't make much sense to have kevlar or maybe even something as common as coral pop up in certain times/places.
  7. This issue can be overcome b simply basing your core landmass on a real world example - for example with the wheel of time Jordon set it in a European/northern American super continent where odd objects could be easily explained through trade. However, the best method in my mind is to simply not mention it - unless it is important. I doubt the average reader will sit down and say 'hang on, that kind of long grass is completely unsuitable for the herding of sheep!' unless you actually state it. Let the reader do then work, describe a sheep field and the person reading it will build I in their mind.

    Of course, this doesn't mean you should go silly anda put a herd of sheep in a desert, but the point still stands.
  8. SeverinR

    SeverinR Vala

    In general,
    all cultures had leather or furs of some type and meat crop.(animal based clothing/food)

    including special items brought in by travelers makes a world more real, and tracking them for continuity is important, but
    to get obcessed with which country produced _____, and which country is the major importer of____, imho is going to indepth,
    missing the forest for the trees.
    Unless of course, the story is about a war concerning the obcession/necessity of a commodity.

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