Last time I talked about “thinking big,” about painting in broad strokes. What’s the general premise of your universe? Does magic work? Is the galaxy devoid of other sentient life? How old is the world? Big questions. This time I want to zoom way in and talk about thinking small. I could have zoomed in even more, getting down to a ‘local area’ that might only consist of a small village, or a spaceship floating in the void, or a wizard’s tower. I won’t be getting quite that small. This time I want to talk about the city of Gravais, which will feature in my upcoming novel and will play an important role in the overall history of Conquest of the Sphere. Gravais is one of those cities that ends up being a convergence of history. The famous and infamous mingle. Conspiracies are hatched. Artists push boundaries. New ideas are birthed. It’s Rome or Alexandria. It’s Paris or London. It’s Hong Kong or Kyoto.
At the time of the novel, Gravais is one of the most powerful and influential cities in the known world. The world and the city are about to change in a big way, but as the novel begins, it is a titan among cities. So, today I want to get into some of the things that went into “designing” this city and how I used “thinking big and small” throughout.
I’ve mentioned that world building, while tons of fun and extremely exciting to do, can be a trap. It’s very easy to fall into a rabbithole of questions and answers that will lead you down unexpected paths, but ultimately not serve the purpose. Of course, if the purpose is the journey, then no harm done. If, however, the purpose is to make something useful to use in a story or a tabletop RPG adventure, then you don’t want to spend all your time lost in the weeds.
Building Gravais came out of need. I needed a large city for characters to meet in. It had to be somewhat large, because urban areas are drivers of invention, they are the places where scientific, artistic, and cultural advancement happen. I knew that the novel would feature a new technology, so obviously it had to have a city where that could be born. I also knew that elements of the story would echo the life and adventures of Ferdinand Magellan, so I wanted somewhere for a royal couple to live. I also had some idea of weaving in a Catholic Church-like organization (structurally similar, not doctrinally). Looking to the real world, it was easy to pick a couple cities to use as inspiration in the early process. Rome is obvious, not only because of its long history and connection to the Catholic Church, but because there is so much literature about it, so many aspects to be explored. I’d also been doing a lot of reading on Byzantium (later Istanbul and/or Constantinople), and couldn’t help but be inspired by that city’s amazing history.
That was it. The basics were down. A large city with elements of Rome and Byzantium that would serve as a regionally dominant force in political and cultural life. So I’ve zoomed down to the ‘small,’ in looking at just one city. But I’ve gone back to the ‘big’ by looking at the overall, vague concept of what the city is.
From there, it’s just trying to capture some important details to bring the city to life and make it a place your characters can explore. So, where is it located? I knew that there would be a nautical element of the novel, so I placed Gravais on the sea. I also heard it said that your setting should have a Mediterranean Sea analog, where countless different cultures come together over millennia, creating a chaotic quilt of civilization. Sounds good to me. I wanted a river to flow through it, though the river would be underground by the time it reached the city proper. Yet, once upon a time it was not. I also liked the idea that this specific geographical position had been used as a city for countless generations, perhaps even predating the Una (Conquest of the Sphere’s equivalent to Humans). One of the things that’s always been core to Conquest of the Sphere is that if you dig down a few layers, you’ll find something, some sign of previous life of previous civilizations. So, it made sense to me that if you dug beneath Gravais, you’d find pieces of earlier cities. There may even be parts of the city’s underground that utilize ancient structures. This idea of an urban landscape piled on top of dozens of others did present a problem, however. Conquest of the Sphere is a world where the sun is always directly above. It neither rises nor sets, it simply dims or brightens. So light always comes from straight above. How do you get light when you live in the lower levels? What about air flow? So I conceived of a series of wind catchers that pull cooler air from above down into the lower levels of the city, clearing out the bad air that might build up. And in a similar way, shafts reach all the way from the lower levels to the sky above, and have mirrors or glass or other reflective and refracting substances that help to redirect the light around the lower levels. Additionally, there are some bioluminescent options, globes filled with a substance that can light up when shaken. These are sometimes used as torches when the latter doesn’t make sense. These sorts of limitations can prompt questions which prompt some thinking and help to create a city that is a bit more unique.
For the story, I needed Gravais to have a few things. Originally, one of the protagonists was going to be an inquisitor, so I needed a religion. I wanted something structured sort of like the Medieval Catholic Church, but I didn’t want it to be a proselytizing religion. Inspired again by Rome, I created the Church of the Twins which worships a set of semi-mythological twin siblings who are also believed to be the founders of the city. In fact, the city’s name is derived from an ancient name meaning “Gift of the Twins.” This religion is somewhat obsessed with bloodlines, and you can only be a true member if you are from one of the chosen bloodlines. In a similar way to the Mongols, who believed you could only follow their religion if you were from their homeland, this belief in bloodlines has kept the Church away from a lot of violent sectarian persecution. Not to say they’re totally peaceful, they simply don’t follow the ‘convert or die’ model. This then gave me something else to play with. I knew I wanted there to be a king and queen, and that the queen was foreign and not widely trusted. With a bloodline-obsessed church, this gave me the perfect excuse for the problem.
After I started writing the novel, I found that a one-off character kept growing in importance. She’s a spy/assassin who works indirectly for the royal family, so I needed a state-sponsored spy organization. I needed a shipyard and all the various things that go along with that. As I was writing about Gravais, I did some traveling in Europe and North Africa and saw firsthand how a lot of old cities grow. Often cities put up exterior walls only to grow beyond them and be forced to build new walls. This can happen time and again, though the walls don’t always survive. It made me rethink how Gravais formed, so that I eventually realized it has three old sections. One part is on a hillside facing the sea. This was a fishing village originally, but now is home to a lot of the shipworks on the lower part and wealthy landowners on the higher part. Another section of the city was a trading post at the mouth of a huge river. It has evolved into the core of Gravais, where the royal palace grounds, the Church, and the merchant houses are all headquartered. Another section, more inland but on what was the original banks of the river is a walled city within a city. It is a ghetto of sorts, held almost independent of the other neighborhoods around it and housing an ethnic minority that dates back to before Gravais spread this far inland. They are culturally and religiously separate, though now definitely tied to the greater city of Gravais. It is in this walled off section that you find the most intense markets and bazaars as well as fringe political factions, rogue religious ideas, and shady deals.
This is enough to give me a sandbox to play in. As I started to write, I added bits of flavor and style. Things I had seen on my travels leaked in. Places for Baal to eat or ask questions popped up. Neighborhoods for Seph to arrange clandestine meetings. Caravansaries for folks needing jobs. Water sellers trying to make a buck.
Thinking small, or smaller, helps you focus more on what you need for your story. If you’ve given yourself enough general details and a few specific bits to hang onto, you can do a lot on the fly while writing. Every time I take a character to Gravais, I find myself learning lots of new things about the city at the same time. I never get tired of discovering new things about the world.
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